MEDIA COURTHOUSE — Common Pleas Court Judge Barry Dozor denied a motion Monday to suspend a request for proposal process that could bring more charter schools into the Chester Upland School District, but indicated some tweaks should be made to the timeline and language.
The daylong hearing included testimony from Receiver Dr. Juan Baughn, Superintendent Dr. Carol D. Birks, certified public accountant John Pund, who helped craft the district’s financial recovery plan, and Dr. Leroy Nunery, strategic advisor to the receiver and author of the RFP.
Dozor issued an order in May that would open up all grades in the district to outsourced management as part of a financial recovery plan. Under the language of Act 141 of 2012, which dictates Chester Upland’s “Financial Recovery Status,” the district could convert an existing school or schools to charters if doing so would result in financial savings. Dozor said he intended the order to be used as a roadmap for CUSD to exit its financial recovery status and allow the elected school board to resume control.
But there have been some snags, according to court filings. Attorneys from the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center, representing a group of parents in the district, argued that the RFP process has not been transparent and the district has failed to provide any status updates or other information publicly, as provided for in the May order. A copy of the RFP went up on the district website Dec. 23, about two months after it was sent out to prospective providers.
Frank Catania, an attorney representing Chester Community Charter School, which already has a large footprint in the district, also filed a motion asking the court to order the district to comply with the May order.
That motion pointed to certain “evaluation criteria” in the RFP that Catania said downplayed financial obligations and improperly weighted other interests that were not part of the order, potentially acting as an automatic disqualifier before the bids even reach the receiver or court.
Catania also argued that the district had not completed financial audits for prior years, a prerequisite in the order for even issuing the RFPs, and had not provided CCCS with some information it was seeking.
Attorney Jeff Sultanik, representing the district, said he had sent Catania some requested information over the weekend, though Catania said he had not had a chance to determine if that was all CCCS had sought.
Pund also said the district has completed its financial audit for 2018 and filed financial statements with the state on time for the first time in years in 2020, but was still working on completing a 2019 audited financial statement. That could be finished within the month, he said, though the current extended deadline to receive RFPs is Jan. 22.
Nunery said the criteria had been weighted more toward educational growth because he had seen instances in the past where a financially strong school had set up shop but was unable to deliver on the educational side. He said he had reached out to more than 20 providers and received eight RFPs so far.
Nunery said this was really only the start of the process, however, and that more information and a higher level of community involvement is expected to form as the RFPs are evaluated by a “task force” charged with making recommendations to the receiver.
Baughn, who has been working in the district in various capacities since 1970, also said that he did not intend to exclude any ideas that might move the district forward. He noted CUSD has contracted some business office operations with the Chester County Intermediate Unit, but he wants to make some adjustments there as well.
“We just need to do everything we can to make it right for the students of Chester,” said Baughn. “I have no idea what that looks like and I’m open to any and all suggestions from the bidders.”
Dozor has not yet issued an order, but did deny a request from the parents’ attorneys to suspend the RFP process in court Monday. He signaled that he would like to set a new RFP deadline date at least 30 days after the 2019 audit is completed, however, and that some paragraphs could be added or removed from the RFP itself.