Pennsylvania Education Department sued for Withholding of Funds

By Ubong Ikpe

(Delaware County, PA) – What happens when a school district does not receive the adequate means from the state to facilitate its functioning for the duration of the school year? In elucidating what is considered “adequate means” the government’s translation is meant to reflect the lowest possible minimum in expenditures allocated to a given unit to exercise, at a peak performance, its functions.

This veto power is usually arbitrarily reflective of what the state deems fit and necessary in its budget process. Where the state doesn’t see fit, it will, at its discretion, eliminate specific programs from the budget allocation. As a resulting of the conundrum-bearing relationship between state and local government, it has fared difficult to make school funding more equitable. Suffice it to say, the beneficiary and trustee relationship is rarely, if ever, in full agreement on the definition of terms. This sound is echoed in the case of the Chester Upland School District against its Commonwealth Pennsylvania.

The Chester Upland School District is suing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and its education system for what the lawsuit calls inadequate funding being appropriated to the district. For failure to provide the school district with adequate funds to operate at its peak, the school board of directors, parents of district students, including one parent of a special education student, have taken to court in class action their concerns as plaintiffs against the state of Pennsylvania.

In addition to the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis, Gov. Tom Corbett and various other state legislative leaders are named as defendants in the civil action. The Chester Upland School District accommodates about 3,700 students and sits in one of the most economically depressed areas in Delaware County relying very deeply on the state subsidies. The failure to provide sufficient monies to the district as a result of the enacted deep budget cuts to education last June had a detrimental effect on the students, teachers and in large part, the state’s education system.

At most, a public school system is funded through two channels: The surrounding community, and from the state level of government. The lion’s share of a school’s funding comes from the state. On average, states paid for 47.1 percent of a school’s cost in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Local Government Finances. This is in comparison to 43.9 percent from local jurisdictions and just 8.9 percent from the federal government.

The other bulk of school funding, however, do come from the local property tax. This property tax is based on the assessed value of a taxpayer’s home, usually a percentage of each $100 in assessed value. Well-established communities usually benefit from well-funded school systems and vice-versa.
Governor Tom Corbett made good on his campaign promise of proposed cuts in the state’s spending after enacting a devastating budget cut last spring which stifled, and in certain cases, eliminated many education programs, altogether.

In June of 2011, Gov. Corbett cut 1.5 billion in education spending for the year which equated to a 3% decrease in public school funding and a 50% decrease in funding for state-owned and four-year institutions from last year.
Governor Corbett made it very clear in his state address that a stimulus to education was not among his top priorities entering office. His cuts reveal no different. There’s an entire laundry list of programs, grants, initiatives, benefits and jobs that were cut in his reassessment while purporting otherwise in his state budget address last March.
Corbett also called for school choice as an option for all taxpaying parents and the rights of school districts to layoff teachers, if needed.

The lawsuit claims that the school district is on the brink of financial collapse. The Chester Upland School District is expected to run out of money this week and claims it won’t be able to meet its payroll obligations. Despite the financial woes, school teachers told the media that they will work without the likely possibility of receiving a paycheck.

Before enacting the deep budget cuts last year, Corbett asked that school teachers take a one-year pay freeze without an option for pay raises, even if it means re-opening union contracts. The budget cuts expected to cut as many as 1500 jobs in the education sector; however, the possibility of an entire school district was unforeseen.
Last Friday, in a radio interview on The Dom Giordano Show on WPHT-AM (1210), Corbett made the assertion that the state had come to the aid of Chester Upland for years that it refused to “continue to bail out one school district just because they don’t know how to control spending their money.”

The school district, however, has other views on the matter. It claims that since the beginning of 2006 it was under state receivership and that fiscal problems were the responsibility of the state and not local officials. During this period of time when the School District was under the control of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the School District’s cumulative debt increased substantially,” the lawsuit states.

The problem, the lawsuit states, is that more than half of the assessed properties in Chester Upland are exempt from local real estate taxes. These include institutions such as Crozer Chester Medical Center, Widener University, Harrah’s Race Track & Casino and the Riverwalk Office Building.

The lawsuit which was filed on Jan. 12 seeks a preliminary injunction prohibiting the defendants from withholding subsidies from Chester Upland.

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