Teachers Offer to Work for Free to Save Their School

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Lawmakers have failed Chester Upland School District.

And now it’s up to teachers and professional staff to save the day.

For two decades, the Pennsylvania legislature hasn’t fulfilled its duty to equitably fund the public school district. Neither has the federal government. Instead, they left the impoverished school just 20 miles west of Philadelphia to survive on the drip of local property taxes from residents who, themselves, don’t have two pennies to rub together.

Moreover, our lawmakers not only permitted but encouraged three privately run charter schools to come to Delaware County and suck away whatever funds they could from the district while shortchanging student services at their privatized facilities.

And even worse, our elected officials drew up legislation allowing these charters to gobble up more funding from the district than the public school is allowed to spend on its own students.

Surprise! It didn’t work!

So the state put the school in receivership, taking away control from local tax payers so unelected bureaucrats could fix all the problems.

Surprise! That didn’t work, either!

And now state and local officials say there isn’t enough money left in the district’s piggy bank to make payroll by the time the school’s 3,300 students are scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.

In such situations, there’s only one thing to do: close the school. Bus the kids to neighboring districts and any charter or cyber schools willing to take them.

No more Chester Uplands. Another neighborhood school bites the dust.

But the district’s more than 300 employees refused to let that happen.

The dreaded teachers union held a meeting and decided to what? Hold a strike? Demand more pay?

No. The 200 members voted unanimously to work without pay as the school year begins – and the district’s secretaries, bus drivers, janitors and administrators joined them.

Sadly, this is the second time the union came to this decision. In 2012 the district was in similar straights but a federal judge forced the state to cough up a few bucks only a few days after the school year began.

To be fair, Gov. Wolf has tried to help the struggling district more than his predecessor. His administration supported a plan to eliminate the district’s $22 million spending deficit by reducing payments to charter and cyber schools so they actually reflect the cost of the services they provide.

The plan called for capping payments to cyber schools at $5,950 per student. After all, schools where students attend class on-line don’t have nearly the overhead of brick-and-mortar districts. Why pay them more than the actual cost?

The plan also would reduce reimbursements for special education students at brick-and-mortar charter schools from $40,000 to $16,000 per student. After all, if the public school only spends this much for these services, why permit charter schools to demand more than twice that amount – more than any other district in the state receives?

These proposals didn’t come out of thin air. Both changes were consistent with recommendations by two bipartisan school funding commissions.

However, County Judge Chad F. Kenney denied the measure because it would do nothing to pay back the district’s charter schools an additional $8 million it already owes.

So to sum up – teachers are willing to work pro bono for the community’s children. They’re willing to put their own lives and families at risk to ensure their neighborhood school has more time to find a solution to its financial woes.

And charter schools? They want their money! Pay up, bitch!

If nothing is done to fix the problem, Chester Uplands deficit is expected to reach $48 million by the end of the year. Wolf and other state officials are scrambling to come up with a new plan.

Meanwhile, the problem is spreading from the Chester Upland District across the entire Commonwealth. Public schools are tightening their belts because the legislature is more than 50 days late passing a state budget. The major sticking point? School funding!

Republicans refuse to heal long-standing education cuts from the previous GOP administration while Democrats support an increase.

As lawmakers bicker, schools across the state are forced to dip into their reserves to keep their doors open. Public schools were required by law to complete their spending plans months ago making educated guesses how much they’d get from the state. Without that money coming in, they’re surviving on their rainy day funds – and as usual storm clouds are pouring on our schools.

Districts serving poor communities often don’t have much left over to continue running while Harrisburg plays political games. If something isn’t done soon, Chester Upland could be the first in a series of dominoes set to topple down.

The only thing keeping these districts afloat is the hard work and good will of their teachers and staff.


A GOFundMe has been set up to help Chester Upland staff.

If you’re able to, please donate whatever you can to the 300 teachers and staff of Chester Upland School District in Eastern Pennsylvania.  Please help these heroic people make ends meet during this time they’re working pro bono.

NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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12 thoughts on “Teachers Offer to Work for Free to Save Their School

  1. The main point of this article is completely false. I know one of those teachers. They do not work for free(but they will not be posted on time) and do not want to work without pay. According to their contract if they do not show up for work, regardless of payment, they are abandoning their position and will be fired. The teachers are only “volunteering” so they don’t lose their jobs. They aren’t heroes here, they are forced martyrs. Essentially, you are celebrating the fact that they are forced to work without pay for fear of losing they jobs when the pay issue is resolved.

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    • Don, I think the situation is horrible. Chester Upland teachers and staff are volunteering to work without pay. If the district gets an influx of funds, as it did in 2012, the staff will be paid for the time they didn’t receive a salary. But they do not have to do what they’re doing. They do not have to go to work without any assurance they will be paid back. It is illegal to make someone work without paying them. That is called slavery. We got rid of that a few years back. These teachers are heroes. They’re putting themselves on the line to save their community school. Yes, if the school is saved, they will get paid, but I don’t think that takes away from their heroism. They could easily give up working in a field that treats educators like this and get a stable and more high paying job in another field where they would be more appreciated. Many teachers are – hence, the nationwide shortage.

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      • Steven, I believe you are missing the point of my post. Yes it would be noble for the teachers to work without pay, but that is not what is happening. They are not getting paid “on time”. It would not be legal otherwise. The teachers also do not have a choice in the matter. They have to work without being paid on time or they get fired. The focus should not be on the noble sacrifice of the teachers, which is forced, but rather on the inability of Chester Upland to meet its payroll requirements. Instead, everyone wants to talk about how noble the teachers are instead of analyzing the messed up situation that is causing this mess.

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      • Don, you are issuing a false dichotomy. It is not EITHER the teachers are heroic OR the state mismanaged the school. It is BOTH. And contrary to your opinion, these teachers have a choice. Hence the vote. They don’t have to do this. They could give up and go find a job that is more promising than this one that no one but them seems to value. If they didn’t show up to work and then somehow the district found funds to reopen, they could not be fired. If anyone tried to do that, they would be sued and lose tremendously. You cannot be forced to take a job where your employer says he can’t pay you. By all means analyze the messed up situation. I did just that in my article. But don’t forget the sacrifice these teachers and their families are making. That’s an insult to this brave staff.

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  2. This would be that “missionary zeal” Reagan used to talk about. Funny they don’t ask hedge fund managers to have missionary zeal. Years ago, our district promoted a principal to asst. supt. without replacing her first, just took her. The teachers divided the principal’s duties amongst themselves for months. Not so much as a thanks from the board. Did that suggest was that maybe an administrator was more expendable than a teacher. The district’s response? They’d pulled principals out of school for so many meetings that they hired asst. principals.

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  3. This article was very eye-opening to a problem that I knew very little about prior to reading. It is so inspiring of these teachers to work without the knowledge of whether or not they are going to get paid, regardless of their reasons for doing so. Being that these students are mostly in low-income households and therefore already at an academic disadvantage, the stability that these teachers are providing by allowing the students to stay with them and at their school is very significant. Also, it is so unfair that the Charter Schools are unequally funded, especially to the extent that they are. The drastic difference between the reimbursements for special education between the charter schools and public schools is appalling. The measures that Governor Wolf attempted to make in order to decrease these differences were respectable, but I do not understand why Judge Chad F. Kenney rejected them. Even if not immediate, the long term impact of how much money would be saved and would be very significant. Thanks for a great post!

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