Budget & Finance

Pa. District’s Fate Debated in Court

By Catherine Gewertz — December 13, 2005 1 min read

A hearing scheduled to resume this week could determine whether the state of Pennsylvania will for the first time put one of its school districts into receivership.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, essentially wants a judge to declare that the Chester-Upland school district should be managed like a bankrupt company. That would mean a court would appoint and supervise someone to manage the 4,700-student system’s business.

Since 1994, Chester-Upland’s finances—and as of 2000, all of its affairs—have been overseen by a control board whose three members are state- and court-appointed.

But problems persisted, and now the question is whether such an arrangement is sufficient.

The Commonwealth Court hearing on Gov. Rendell’s lawsuit is set to resume in Philadelphia on Dec. 15 as lawyers for the control board present their case. During the first part of the hearing, held Nov. 28-30 in Harrisburg, the state presented its case.

Its highest-profile witness, acting state Secretary of Education Gerald L. Zahorchak, testified that the district needs a tighter state rein because it is faltering fiscally and academically.

A financial consultant called by the state testified that the district’s budget was in disarray last year, but he also submitted a report saying the control board had rectified its problems. He was also expected to testify for the defense.

The state contends that the Chester-Upland district is in dire need of state help.

“The governor thinks it’s become a mess financially, academically, and educationally,” said Mike Storm, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania education department.

But control board members contend they are being scapegoated for many previous years of mismanagement.

Granville Lash, one of the members, said he welcomes investigation into all those sharing blame for the district’s woes. But the state, he said, is wrongly escaping its share.

“We didn’t create the situation. We inherited it,” Mr. Lash said. “This has been going on for decades, and the state knew about it.”

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