Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cui bono? The campaign contributors, of course

Boy oh boy, what a reality show this Chester School District bankruptcy thing is!
So here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know:  Vahan H. Gureghian, the owner of the Chester Community Charter School gave Tom Cortbett $325,714 in 2009 and 2010 in his run-up to the governor’s mansion, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics,
And here’s something else I’ll bet you didn’t know:  The state requires that the Chester Upland School District pay each of the charter schools within the district $9,858 per pupil and an additional $14,670 over and above that, a total of $24,528, for each special education student each year, according to CU’s complaint filed in federal court.  The charter schools claim to have 670 special education students out of their total population of 3,000. 
This is a bit of a long explanation, so stay with me here.  So that’s 670 students times $24,528 equals $16.4 million, just for the 20 percent of the charter school population that is designated special education.  
CU has almost exactly the same percentage of special-ed students, 740 out of a school population of 3,700, also about 20 percent  of the overall population.  The state only gives CU a total of about $14,000 for each of its special-ed kids, $10,000 less than it requires CU to give to the charter schools. 
Chester Upland has such a miniscule tax base that it depends on the state for 79 percent of its funding.  The state cut $23 million out of CU’s total allotment for this school year, yet did not, and maybe it cannot, reduce the amount that CU must pay the charter schools.
Moreover, the state has been paying the charter school directly for more than a year and then deducting that amount from CU’s funding, just in case CU wanted to spend some of that money on its own students.
Connecting any dots yet?  I’ll do it for you:  the guy who gave Tom Corbett $325,714 in campaign contributions isn’t hurting a bit and, in fact, the state is going out of its way to protect his taxpayer-funded income, whatever it may be as, indeed, it must do under the Charter School Law of 1997.  That law is sacred. 
But to do so, the state is violating just about every other state and federal education law and several parts of the U.S. Constitution by letting the Chester Upland School District go down the tubes. 
If it weren’t for the fact that it is profoundly hurting 3,700 Chester students and is damaging the lives and livelihoods of thousands of parents, taxpayers and employees – if it weren’t for that, I’d say grab your popcorn and pull up a chair to watch this sideshow play out.
What will happen in the next episode?  Does the state really mean to force the most impoverished city in the state, and one of the most impoverished in the country, to shut down its schools?  Or does it just intend to keep starving it until it can be drowned in a bathtub?
Are the surrounding districts supposed to take Chester’s 3,700 students?  I can’t wait to see that happen.
What about Chester Upland taxpayers?  Are they expected to continue to pay the highest tax rate in the county, if not the state, for no public education at all?
I’ve been reading the court documents.  Chester Community Charter School has joined the suit, suing both the state and CU, and the Pennsylvania Education Association – the teachers union – has filed a brief seeking to intervene.  No answer from the state yet, but the complaint is fascinating.  Here are a few more highlights:
·         82 percent of the school district’s students are entitled to free and reduced lunches based on their economic status.
·         More than 50 percent of the assessed property in Chester is tax exempt.  That includes hospitals, Widener University, Harrah’s Casino, the soccer stadium, the state prison and the Riverwalk office building, basically all of the economic development in Chester for the past 30 years. 
·         29 percent of the taxes assessed homeowners and small business owners eventually become delinquent and when the school district gives up hope of ever collecting the taxes and  seizes those properties, they do not sell at tax sales.
·         The school district has been a distressed district for 17 years and under various forms of state control for 16 of those years.
·         The last version of that control – the Education Empowerment Board, which operated from 2006 to 2010 – increased the school district’s budget from $85 million to $113 million and the number of its employees from 590 to 735, even in the face of declining enrollment from 4,600 students to today’s 3,700.
·         Then in June 2010, the state handed this whole steaming pile to the school board elected by the people of Chester and said, “Here, do something with this offal.”
·         The school district did, cutting 115 teachers and 84 support staff – 28 percent of its total personnel – this school year and consolidating schools.  It even cut out its entire reading program. 
Pennsylvania is obligated to provide a thorough and efficient public education to all of its children.  The state is not doing that here and by not doing it, it is violating the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. 
No child left behind, indeed!


  1. Wow!! Well researches and well written!
    Missing in here by accident I am sure.
    1)Is how much the SEIU gave to Rendell, for comparison.
    2)How well are the charter schools doing on educating the children, including their special needs kids. Graduation rate? Standardized test rankings?

    I agree something has to be done, and I want the other school districts to absorb these children. Only 260 per district divided by 12 grades. Since the taxpayers already pay 79% of the revenue, and we get ZERO vote in their school board, I would challenge that zero vote on the Due Process provision as well!

  2. Jodine, Thanks for this post. I'm very disappointed by how the media has been reporting on Chester-Upland. It should go something like this...

    They started out an a gambling syndicate back in the 80's, now they run a multi-million dollar investment firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. These guys donate millions of dollars to PACS who in turn donate money to politicians who support "school choice", vouchers, charter schools...Money buys influence...there's obviously lots to be made if we privatize our public schools. And Vahan Gureghian, owner of Chester Community Charter Schools management company ...made over $60 million over the past ten years "educating" the children of Chester... He just bought two lots in Palm Beach, FL for $28.9 million where he plans to build a 20,000 sq. ft. mansion complete with two bowling this where people want their tax money to go?

  3. Can you explain highest taxes in delco? they brag on their site that they haven't been raised in 16 years. Otherwise you make some great points.

  4. Because the state created unequal tax bases when it created school districts, the amount of tax on real estate is vastly unequal. For instance: A $100K house in Radnor S.D. might be assessed $1500 in school tax. A $100K house in William Penn S.D. would be assessed in the $3000 range. This is because Radnor has a total taxable base of $3Billion and William Penn has only $1Billion. THAT is the crux of the problem and the violation of equal protection. School Boundaries create Jim Crow as long as the property tax bases are unequal and you cannot cross school boundaries to register.

  5. You should distinguish between the charter schools in Chester. The one only has 323 students compared to the thousands at the other.

  6. as a Chester resident deeply involved in the movement to keep our schools open, I applaud your research and explanation. It's all about getting this message out to folks that it is much more than parent apathy that created the crisis we are involved in...