Chester Upland School District (CUSD) administrators and board members candidly spoke out Tuesday afternoon (June 14th) against state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland’s recent proposal to sue the state to close Chester’s high schools if Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed education budget, including a whopping $20 million cut for Chester-Upland, is passed on June 30th.
“The school board is perfectly capable of speaking for itself,” said CUSD Board President Wanda Mann. “We had nothing to do with the press conference (Kirkland) held; we were caught off-guard and totally disagree.”
Mann was referring to the brief press conference Kirkland staged early Monday morning on Springfield High School’s grounds with a small group of supporters. The purpose was to voice their heightened concerns about how the district would sustain itself if it were to adopt its preliminary, balanced operating budget unveiled earlier this month to the public, if the overall state budget were so severely cut.
Kirkland explained, however, that he was not speaking on behalf of the school board nor is he paid to do so. “I was speaking as a legislator, a concerned parent, a resident of Chester, and a pastor who has the heart of people in hand,” he said.
Mann, like Springfield High School Principal Frank McKnight, said she was surprised about the press conference in front of the school. Mann said Kirkland had not once reached out to the board to run the proposal or press conference by them.
“That is a lie,” Kirkland said, in disbelief that no one had known beforehand. The Sunday before the press conference, he said he announced his plans at Community Baptist Church where he claims a CUSD board member was present. “(The board member) applauded me,” he said of the person he chose not to reveal. “I also had a conversation with an administrator and (was) told it was a great idea; (the person) even knew what high school I was going to and if they were really against it, they would’ve called me and told me not to do it.”
Kirkland also said Springfield was only the first of the high schools he planned to visit to send a message about CUSD’s situation and to fight for students to receive “an excellent education.”
If the state budget were to be passed as is, Kirkland suggested filing a federal lawsuit against the state, shutting down Chester’s high schools, and allowing CUSD students to go to any other school in Delaware County for a good education. He called the proposed cuts “mean-spirited, hateful and wrong” and that it would destroy the district.
The budget, which CUSD personnel expressed was disheartening but manageable, would call for a 40 percent reduction in the teaching force, a 50 percent decrease in support staff, 13 percent decline in administrative staff, and another 53 percent drop in operational support, with additional cuts across the board. Class sizes would also be inflated from 21 students per class to 35.
CUSD Acting Superintendent Dr. Joyce Wells had reiterated over the last month that despite the potential drastic cuts, none of the district’s three high schools would close and students would continue receiving a quality education at any rate.
Wells listed numerous opportunities CUSD offers students including dual enrollment programs, partnerships with universities for college credits, multiple trade certifications offered and Youth Court programs. She also praised graduating students for receiving about $400,000 in academic and athletic scholarships, having a 63 percent graduation rate this year, and the growing number of college acceptances they see every year. She believes positive aspects the district offers should be taken into account, instead of the district being defined merely by a single test score number.
“Our high school students mean the world to us,” Mann said, adding, the board has been working diligently to maintain students’ proper education where they already are and that she couldn’t believe “anyone would sidestep this process.”
Sidestepping or not, Kirkland said he, or anyone else who chooses to support legal action, does not need permission from school officials to file a federal lawsuit and that the process would potentially go through the Education Law Center, a non-profit legal advocacy and educational organization.
“We’re not throwing our kids away,” Mann said, adding, “We love them, we’re going to take care of them, and we’re going to educate them.”
A preliminary budget public hearing is slated for Thursday, June 16th at 6 P.M. at Chester High School.