Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Would You Keep Going to Work if You Stopped Getting Paid?

obriena's picture

1/19/12 Update: NEA Today has the latest on the situation in Chester Upland.

Educators in Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District were forced to make that very difficult decision recently, when the district announced that without an infusion of new cash from the state, it would not be able to make payroll starting January 18.

But members of the Chester Upland Education Association and the Chester Upland Education Support Personnel Association are doing all they can to keep schools running as long as possible. These educators and education support personnel have passed a resolution vowing to stay on the job for as long as they are individually able, even if the district fails to pay them in the near future.

Why? Commitment to students. As elementary school teacher Sara Feguson said in The Philadelphia Inquirer,

"It's alarming. It's disturbing. But we are adults; we will make a way. The students don't have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job."

These students already face enormous challenges. The district is one of the poorest in the state – more than 70% receive free or reduced price lunch. The city suffers from problems with drugs and gang-related violence, and in 2010 Chester had the highest murder rate in the state. As NEA Today points out,

Chester Upland’s educators are more than teachers, nurses, librarians, custodians and assistants – they are players in a daily drama focused on keeping kids in schools and away from destructive influences. Working without a pay check is hard to imagine – but allowing Chester Upland’s schools to close is unacceptable.

“We need the students to know that we’re here and we’re not abandoning them,” Ferguson said. “We need them to know they’ll have some place to go.” …

“That’s why we have to keep showing up,” said middle school math teacher Fran Santoleri. “It gives them stability.”

The state has refused to help the district with more funding, with Governor Tom Corbett claiming that district officials are unable to control spending their money and suggesting that the state is considering a takeover.

But local officials blame the state. In addition to the state budget cuts that have impacted education budgets across the state (particularly low-income communities that rely more heavily on state funding for education and lack a local tax base from which to raise additional funds), a lawsuit against state and legislative leaders points out that the district was in state receivership from 2006 to June 2011 – which near as I can tell means that the state had oversight over the district’s budget during that time.

And the district has taken a number of actions to cut costs. As Valerie Strauss points out:

  • Some 40 percent of the system’s professional staff, and 50 people of its unionized support staff, have been laid off.
  • The acting superintendent and assistant acting superintendent have been laid off too.
  • Some families are leaving the area or sending their children to other schools, but about 3,650 remain behind in buildings that are crumbling and in need of repair.

The story in Chester Upland is awful. It illustrates so many of our problems in education – and America – today, including the polarized nature of all politics these days (in this instance, state versus local, though often Republican versus Democrat), and the inadequacies of our current system for funding schools, which relies on the wealth of residents to fund schools.

The only bright spot in the story is the dedication of the teachers and other education professionals, who are sacrificing themselves to serve their students. While some critics claim that unions are guardians of the status quo, unwilling to sacrifice for the good of children when it impacts their salaries, healthcare or pensions, here they lead the charge to ensure that students needs are met for as long as possible.

And yet I have no doubt that while these educators are now being hailed as heroes, they would much rather be in a situation where they could ensure that food is on the table for their families, and that their mortgage gets paid.