PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A federal judge has claimed jurisdiction over a broke suburban Philadelphia school district’s funding crisis.
Mindful of the Supreme Court’s instruction to generally leave educational decisionmaking to the states, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson said a large chunk of the funding dispute between cash-strapped Chester Upland School District and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania belongs in federal court.
Teetering on the brink of financial collapse and within days of being unable to make payroll, the 3600-student district – one of the poorest in the state – sued Pennsylvania in mid-January, demanding at least $7 million in emergency funding to ensure its continued operation in the following months.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has provided emergency funds, and it is likely that the district will stay open for the remainder of the school year, Baylson noted in an opinion Friday.
But the core issues in the suit remain unresolved.
Perhaps the most prominent among those issues is the constitutionality of the formula that the state uses to apportion federal subsidies for special education among school districts.
Pennsylvania receives federal funds to provide special-education services to students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other federal law.
But the district says Pennsylvania modified the formula in 1994.
“The formula for funding services to students with disabilities was changed from a method based on the number and needs of the students in a school district to a system primarily based upon the number of students in the school district without regards to the number of disabled students or their disability and limiting the percentage of students for whom funding is provided,” the district’s amended suit states.
For districts like Chester Upland, where at least one-fifth of the students have disabilities, that change was particularly devastating, according to the complaint.
The district says a confluence of factors, including the state’s unfair funding formula, will prevent it from providing special education services mandated by IDEA.
Claims “averring imminent widespread violations of the IDEA … are an appropriate subject matter for federal court jurisdiction,” Baylson found in a 48-page opinion.
The district also blames its dire financial straits on the state’s Charter School Law, saying the law obligates it to fund charter-school special education at an unreasonably high per-student rate.
Baylson refused to entertain the funding-allocation dispute, however, likening it to battles between the Capulets and Montagues in “Romeo and Juliet.”
“This court has no jurisdiction to require appropriations by the state in any specific amount or to any specific school,” he wrote, noting that related litigation is underway in the state’s Commonwealth Court.
As of now, it is uncertain whether the district will have adequate funds to educate disabled students in the 2012-13 academic year, the judge said.
That concern, he said, will be the focus of a trial slated for May 7.