When Bonita Davis’ husband passed away in August, she faced the same fears and anxieties that would grip any new single parent. The bills didn’t stop coming. She wondered how she would continue supporting her two children in college.
And Davis, a sixth-grade teacher in the Chester Upland School District in Chester, PA, had no idea how much worse things were about to get.
Chester Upland, one of the poorest districts in Pennsylvania, made the stunning announcement in December that, without an infusion of cash from the state, it could no longer make payroll – starting with employees’ January 18th checks. Devastating state budget cuts had rendered the district destitute and had left its teachers, support professionals and administrators with two choices – find other employment, or continue showing up to work with no certainty of when they would be paid as promised.
“In the 27 years I’ve been here, I’ve never had to worry about the possibility of a job that wouldn’t exist or children who wouldn’t have a stable place to go,” Davis said. “We’re worried about not existing.”
Fears of a mass employee exodus and school closings quickly swept through the community, and educators were inundated daily with questions from students about whether the schools would be open the following day. And that’s when something heroic happened.
At an early January meeting, members of the Chester Upland Education Association and the Chester Upland Education Support Personnel Association, affiliates of the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the National Education Association, passed a resolution promising to stay on the job – even without pay – as long as they were individually able. The teachers and support professionals vowed to band together to keep the schools running for as long as they could.
“I was never so proud in my life to be a PSEA member, to be a CUEA member,” said Columbus Elementary math teacher Sara Ferguson, a third-generation teacher in Chester Upland. “Everyone has different financial situations, but … we decided to remain on the job as professionals.”
Audio: Columbus Elementary Teacher Sara Ferguson Discusses the Vote by Teachers and Support Professionals to Remain on the Job.
Understanding the Decision
Chester Upland’s educators understand that skipping pay checks
Chester Upland is one of the poorest districts in Pennsylvania – and the pay reflects that. Education support professionals and teachers earn considerably less than their peers in neighboring districts.
The pay may be low in Chester, but the stakes are unbelievably high. Drugs, poverty and gang-related violence have left a trail of hardship and heartbreak across the city. In 2010 Chester had the highest murder rate in Pennsylvania, and just 18 months ago the city was operating under a state of emergency after a rash of violence.
Chester Upland’s educators are more than teachers, nurses, librarians, custodians and assistants – they are players in a daily drama focused on keeping kids in schools and away from destructive influences. Working without a pay check is hard to imagine – but allowing Chester Upland’s schools to close is unacceptable.
“We need the students to know that we’re here and we’re not abandoning them,” Ferguson said. “We need them to know they’ll have some place to go.”
Educators say the fear of being abandoned is running rampant among students, many of whom have learned about the district’s financial hardships through news reports and community chatter. As students walk past the shuttered businesses and abandoned homes that dot many of the streets of Chester, they are reminded daily that people sometimes leave. The city has lost 12 percent of its population since 1990, and kids worry that teachers and support staff will be next to go.
“That’s why we have to keep showing up,” said middle school math teacher Fran Santoleri. “It gives them stability.”
As Chester Upland’s finances go up in smoke, the district finds itself in the unenviable position of turning for help to the man who lit the match – Governor Tom Corbett. Corbett cut $860 million from public education, ignoring warnings that poor districts, which lack a tax base to offset aid cuts, would be disproportionately affected.
“Our city does not have a great revenue base,” said John Shelton, who has been teaching in the district for 17 years and is a CUEA vice president. “Anything that hurts revenue hurts the kids.”
Corbett’s “let them eat cake” education budget has wreaked havoc in low-income districts across the state, and shortchanged Chester Upland by $8.4 million this year. Compounding that problem, nearly 45 percent of Chester Upland’s funding is used to support two charter schools. The Corbett administration has thus far rejected appeals from the district for an advance on state subsidy payments, suggesting that Chester Upland has a history of mismanagement.
But the district was under state control until 2010, and operated during the 2010-2011 school year under a state-crafted budget. The district’s elected board prepared the budget only for the current year, and has had control of the district’s finances only since last summer.
No one can accuse Chester Upland of hoarding money. The district laid off 40 percent of its teachers and half its unionized support staff before the start of the year, leading some class sizes to balloon to more than 40 students. Buildings are outdated and students need basic materials and supplies.
“The kids in Chester Upland don’t get the same opportunities as the kids in other communities,” said Jacqueline Browne, a district administrative assistant and leader of the support staff union.
Amazingly, for all its talk about bringing accountability to Pennsylvania’s schools, Corbett’s administration can’t wash its hands fast enough of the mess it made in Chester Upland, and it’s unclear whether relief is ever coming. Acting Deputy Superintendent Thomas Persing said it’s time for all the adults involved to forget the politics and do what’s right for kids. Chester Upland provides students with more than an education – in many cases, the district provides the only meal kids eat all day.
“Children won’t just go hungry for an education,” Persing said. “They’ll go hungry physically.”
The teachers and support professionals of Chester Upland are doing everything in their power to prevent that – but it’s not easy. If they are heroes, they’d prefer not to be – they want to do right by their students, but are understandably frightened of losing their homes or being unable to provide for their families.
“As long as I can use my reserves and keep a roof over my family, I’ll stay. I’m in it for the long haul,” Shelton said. “But we need help. We need serious help.”