School & District Management

State-Run Pa. District Battles Host of Woes

By Catherine Gewertz — March 01, 2005 4 min read
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Four years after a private management company assumed responsibility for most of the Chester-Upland, Pa., schools, the system is in dire financial and academic straits, and is considering letting the contract expire.

The impoverished district southwest of Philadelphia has been widely watched as an example of state intervention in an ailing school system. Pennsylvania has been in charge of Chester’s finances since 1994 and all of its operations since 2000. The 7,500-student district has also sparked debate about the benefits of private school management, since eight of its nine schools are run by New York City-based Edison Schools Inc.

Chester High School, shown in August 2002, has new energy under a new leader, but most schools in the poverty-stricken district continue to struggle under state oversight.

Worsening budget and financial-reporting problems last spring, followed by overcrowding and brawling at the district’s high school last fall, sharpened the focus on Chester’s management. A recent flurry of local and state reports has scrutinized everything from the district’s bookkeeping to its curriculum and found precious little to praise.

The district could run out of money by May, and by June is anticipated to run a $5.3 million deficit on an annual operating budget of $80 million. Last spring saw 70 percent or more of Chester’s students scoring at the basic level or below on state tests.

Chester-Upland’s search for a new superintendent has reignited discussion about how the schools should be run and by whom.

A New Phase

Charles A. Scott, the interim superintendent, has submitted to the state a plan that envisions Edison’s completion of its work there in the spring of 2006, when its contract expires.

“It’s time for a rebirth,” said Mr. Scott, who was tapped by state Secretary of Education Francis V. Barnes in December, when the previous superintendent departed amid state criticism. “It’s at a point where, for the district to go forward, they have to make this kind of a decision.”

Mr. Scott said he believes that “self-operating is in the best interest of the children of the school district,” largely because of “community dissatisfaction” with the present arrangement.

He also believes that having the district operate its own schools would make Chester-Upland a more appealing prospect for a new superintendent. The district hopes a new leader will be in place this summer.

Secretary Barnes, who has served in his post for four months, said in a recent interview that he has nothing against private management if it works. It would be unwise for Chester, however, to part ways with Edison unless it has a sound, detailed management plan, he said.

The state schools chief said he has sought a series of reports from the district on its finances, management, and safety as part of the effort to help it set its direction.

“I’m adamant about not letting emotion drive the decisionmaking process,” he said. “Having a goal saying we should reclaim the district is a noble goal, but if you don’t have the infrastructure or the wherewithal to produce that, then it’s shortsighted.”

Richard W. O’Neill, an Edison general manager and senior vice president who oversees operations in Chester, said the company has been hamstrung by many factors, most of which are beyond its control.

He faults Edison itself for failing to install strong school administrators quickly enough. But he said the district often made staffing and supplying schools difficult by delaying decisions, including signing Edison’s contracts.

Even with a $4.1 million annual contract, Edison has not made a profit in Chester, Mr. O’Neill said. Edison officials are discussing whether the company should remain in Chester after its current contract expires, he said.

Michael F.X. Gillin, who chairs the state board of control that oversees the district, said he believes Edison has done a good job in a dysfunctional district. One middle school has seen a significant rise in test scores, he noted, and a new high school principal is infusing positive energy there.

Not Enough Change?

The board—whose three current members were appointed in January 2003 by former state Secretary of Education Charles Zogby—has let Edison run the schools while most of its attention is consumed by money problems, he said.

Some observers believe both state control and privatization in Chester haven’t produced strong results because the changes didn’t go far enough.

Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the Denver-based consulting firm of Augenblick, Palaich & Associates, said that even though Pennsylvania installed a control board in Chester, it allowed private companies—three at first, then only Edison after one company backed out and another was bought by Edison—to try to solve the problems and “didn’t actively engage in managing the effort,” he said.

Edison also wasn’t given enough authority or resources to fully implement its model, he said. “I don’t think anyone there would argue it’s a success story,” Mr. Ziebarth said.

Thomas E. Persing, a retired schools superintendent who served on the Chester control board from 1998 to 2003, said he doesn’t believe schools in Chester will improve without a major community revitalization.

“Edison had a lot of turmoil of its own, and never invested what it thought it could,” he said. “The state took over and didn’t know what it was doing. This is a whole community issue. And there’s enough blame to go around for all of us.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as State-Run Pa. District Battles Host of Woes

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