School & District Management

Governor Wages Battle for Control of Pa. District

By Catherine Gewertz — January 23, 2007 4 min read
John H. Estey, right, the chief of staff for Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, works with fellow members of the board of control for the Chester-Upland school district at a Jan. 18 meeting. Mr. Estey was appointed to the position this month by a judge, with support of the governor. The state has been in court seeking a greater role in managing the district, which is one of its lowest-performing.

Pennsylvania has placed its governor’s chief of staff on the board of the state’s second-worst-performing school district, part of its yearlong legal battle to take full control of the Chester-Upland district.

John H. Estey was appointed to the school district board of control by a Delaware County judge on Jan. 3. The board was created in 1994 to come to the district’s financial rescue, but was later empowered to supervise its academic work as well. Its members are chosen by a judge or by the state secretary of education. A judge must formally appoint them.

Mr. Estey, a government and corporate lawyer, will remain as the top adviser to Gov. Edward G. Rendell. Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, and Secretary of Education Gerald L. Zahorchak agreed to name him also to the Chester-Upland control board, said state education department spokeswoman Sheila Ballen.

“I can’t think of a bigger statement than appointing your chief of staff to show that the commitment is there that we can turn this district around,” Ms. Ballen said last week. “It’s talking the talk and walking the walk.”

Mr. Estey arrives as the control board tries to stabilize itself, and to wrap up a lawsuit that will determine whether the state can appoint a receiver to run the district’s most important operations.

Two of its three members have resigned within the past year. A replacement for one of them lasted only a few weeks before resigning. Mr. Estey fills one vacancy; another remains to be filled.

The state has sued for the right to appoint a receiver to replace the control board. Lawyers representing the state and defending the control board filed their final papers last week. They are now awaiting a ruling from a Commonwealth Court judge, who has heard the case in stages since the fall of 2005, when it was filed. This past October, the judge granted the secretary of education some financial-oversight powers, such as the right to inspect the district’s books, and to approve large expenditures.

Gaining No Ground?

But the state seeks far greater authority. If it appoints a receiver, the control board will be restricted to duties such as setting its meeting schedule and making sure teachers are certified. Secretary Zahorchak, who would act as the receiver, would wield key powers such as approving the budget.

To convince a judge that should happen, the state argued that the district’s financial situation has only gotten worse in the past several years, and that it has made little academic progress.

Out of 501 districts in Pennsylvania, Chester-Upland’s 4,600 students score 500th on state reading and mathematics tests. Heavy borrowing has left the district, 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia, with long-term debt of $83 million on an annual operating budget of $84 million. The high school struggles with too few teachers and too much violence. More than 2,500 of the district’s students have migrated to charter schools.

“The children of Chester have been cheated out of an education for a long, long time,” Wendy Beetlestone, one of the state’s lawyers, said in an interview.

The control board’s chairman, Michael F.X. Gillin, who has served on the panel since 2003, said the district is making progress under a new superintendent, Gloria Grantham. A new reading curriculum helped boost last spring’s test scores, he said. But the state’s court papers show the biggest increases didn’t exceed 2.4 percent, and three-quarters of the district’s students still fail the state tests.

Mr. Gillin acknowledged that Chester-Upland carries $15 million more in long-term debt now than it did four years ago. He said he is exhausted from trying to right the ship, and overseeing too many board meetings that have drawn the police to quiet angry audience members. But the best way to solve the district’s difficulties, he said, is through a cooperative partnership with the state.

“A receivership will only put more layers of bureaucracy on attempts to make things better,” he said.

John P. Krill Jr., the control board’s lawyer, said that allowing a receiver in Chester-Upland would “set a terrible precedent for local control,” signaling that the state could take over it disapproves of a district’s management.

To Patina Scarboro, however, that change would be welcome. While she is happy with the extra math help and the differentiated reading opportunities provided to her 2nd and 3rd grade daughters in the district, she is worried about the high school her son attends. Each day, instead of going to English class, her son and his classmates left the building because they had no teacher, according to Ms. Scarboro. In history, she said, he was bringing home crossword puzzles as his assignments.

“I really think it would be better if the state took Chester-Upland back,” Ms. Scarboro said. “You would think [the control board] would know what to do after all these years. But they really don’t.”

Mr. Gillin said he welcomes Mr. Estey’s help on the board. “Maybe he’ll get a firsthand look at what it’s all about,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as Governor Wages Battle for Control of Pa. District

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