In the CUSD financial recovery report addressing both the financial and academic challenges of this 2,899-student public school district, Chief Recovery Officer Joseph P. Watkins presented a series of bold initiatives crucial to steering the district away from financial collapse and leading it to financial and academic success.

With 50.4 percent of the students testing below standard reading levels and 44 percent scoring below basic math levels, with an occupancy rate of 35 percent in the schools, and student-teacher ratios as low as 11 to 1 in some classes, the district has been labeled “distressed” by the state Education Secretary.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed,” said Watkins, who was appointed as chief recovery officer on August 17 and tasked with crafting a plan to rescue the district. “Becoming a great school district requires thinking creatively about how to move forward. It requires changing how business is done and trying some brand new alternatives or previously unpopular actions.”

Summary of Recommendations 

New district leadership
Encouraging students to return to the district
School consolidation and rightsizing of staff
Academic performance benchmarks
Education enhancements 

New district leadership 

A cornerstone of the plan is hiring by April 1 a dynamic, permanent superintendent who will raise academic standards, establish a vision for a high-performing district and ultimately win back the students who left the Chester Upland School District for charter schools. Charter and cyberschools now educate 3,997 students in the district.

The district will also hire a chief financial officer to institute a formal budget process, improve budget tracking and financial reporting, and increase accountability.  To raise revenue, the CFO will be expected to do a better job of collecting property taxes and securing increased federal funding through grant-writing.

Encouraging students to return to the district 

According to Chief Recovery Officer Joseph P. Watkins, bringing students back into the public schools is essential if the district is to achieve long-term financial solvency.  School funding follows the child in Pennsylvania. By returning more students to the public school district, tax dollars will flow back into the district to pay for school expenses, including eventually restoring some of the cuts proposed by the plan.  The recovery plan as outlined by Watkins sets a goal of regaining 4.5 percent of students from charters  and cyber schools next year and 3 percent each subsequent year through 2017-18. 

School consolidation and rightsizing of staff 

With the loss of students, the district cannot afford to operate all of its school buildings and must “rightsize” its facilities. That requires closing buildings that are aging, outdated, underutilized, or are too costly to continue to operate and maintain. Consolidating the district’s eight schools into five will optimize the use of the facilities and save $2 million in operating costs. The planned reconfiguration will ensure each building is operating between 60% and 80% of classroom capacity, leaving room for future growth.

The school most immediately affected is Columbus Elementary School, which currently operates at 19 percent of student capacity. Under the recovery plan, it will be closed in December and its students shifted to other district schools over the winter break.  Stetser Elementary will also be closed over the winter break or soon thereafter.

Over the summer, the school reconfiguration will be completed with the closing of Smedley High School, the current STEM magnet high school, and the administration building. The STEM magnet program and the district administration will be shifted into a separate self-contained space at Chester High School.  Parent input will be sought on the best way to implement the building realignment.

With a declining school population and fewer schools, the district is also forced to reduce its faculty and staff by approximately 17 this school this school year and 53 next year. However, as the plan to transform Chester Upland into a high-achieving district progresses, and students return to the public schools, teacher ranks will grow to meet the growing needs.

“We are embarking  on a plan of academic excellence to bring students back to the district. As that occurs, the district will have the funds to improve its offerings and hire teachers back,” said Watkins.

Academic performance benchmarks 

Test scores clearly illustrate the challenges facing the district. Chester Upland students currently lag even in comparison to other economically disadvantaged districts countywide and statewide in both English and math. As a whole, the district has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2012, and is in its 10th year of corrective action for not meeting academic benchmarks as outlined in the No Child Left Behind law. 

“Our children can wait no longer for the chance to learn, to graduate and to go on to college or a trade school. They deserve the opportunity to succeed,” Watkins said.

The plan establishes a series of academic performance benchmarks that must be achieved over the next two years. If the district fails to meet them, that failure will trigger a transfer to complete external management.  This could be a combination of charter schools, cyber charters and an education management organization.

“We need to work together as a community to save our schools,” Watkins said. “We have two years to achieve academic excellence and put our financial house in order. We have a deadline, and we must do everything we can, as parents, teachers and administrators, to succeed for the sake of our children.”

Education enhancements 

Watkins also envisions attracting private dollars to the school district to supplement public funding, enabling the district to restore academic offerings and other services to enhance students’ opportunities for success in a positive educational environment. He is currently working to bring music and art programs back into the schools through a partnership with the charter school community, as well as establishing an education fund. After school programs, summer programs, a broader range of sports and other activities and other efforts to improve the culture in the district are all on his list of priorities.

The recovery plan was developed with the assistance of PFM, a national financial advisory firm, which began with a financial baseline and examined the resources available to bring the district into financial solvency, as well as measured the impact of the district’s financial crisis on academic performance.

It was also crafted with input from school board members and community leaders, whose support and leadership going forward are essential to the plan’s success, Watkins emphasized. In addition to seven public meetings, Watkins connected with students, parents and grandparents, educators including representatives of higher education, the business community and health partners.

The plan is a framework for rebuilding the schools, and the law allows for amendments to be made as it implemented.

“We have an amazing opportunity here to transform our school district,” said Watkins. “By working together, we can build a successful school district that serves as a model for urban education in Pennsylvania and in the nation.”


The Approval Process for the Financial Recovery Plan  

The plan now goes to the Chester Upland School District board, which must approve or reject the plan by Nov. 23.

If the board approves the plan, Chief Recovery Officer Watkins has 5 days to send the report to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education. The Education Secretary then has 10 days to approve or disapprove the plan. If rejected by the Secretary, the CRO must present a revised plan within 20 days. If the plan is approved by the Education Secretary, by state statute Watkins will oversee the implementation of the plan for the academic and financial recovery of the Chester Upland School District.