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Lily Eskelsen's picture

There are two stories to tell in Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania. One is a heroic story worthy of a book or movie deal. There are plenty of movies about the lone teacher crusader who against all odds and against the establishment brings students out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of the power of their own futures.

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I’m a sucker for those movies. But I have a love-hate relationship with them because inevitably, in order to lionize the hero, they have to make all the other teachers in the school less than heroes. They have to make the principal a bully. Movies need a good guy to cheer for and bad guys to boo over. Así es la vida. That’s the way it goes.

Chester Upland, a poor and predominantly minority district, is a long way from Hollywood, but it does have a star in Sara Ferguson.

She’s a teacher of literacy and Math. She’s a good teacher who loves her students passionately. But that’s not why she was interviewed on the Ellen Show and the Ed Show. That’s not why President Obama invited her to sit in the First Lady’s box to hear the State of the Union address.

She came to the President’s attention because she has been the face of the sad saga that has become Chester Upland School District.

She’s passionate about her students, yes. But she’s the first one to tell you that she’s only a representative of her colleagues who all love their students passionately.

She’s proud to be one of them. She thanks her union for supporting them in their struggle during the funding crisis in her district that resulted in 204 teachers and 64 education support professionals being told a few months ago that due to budget cuts by Governor Tom Corbett there just wasn’t enough money to cover their paychecks. Sorry.

The first story of Chester Upland is about those 204 teachers and 64 education support professionals and their union getting together to discuss a crisis that meant closing the doors of their schools located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Pennsylvania. This was not a layoff.

This was the result of the meat cleaver the Governor took to state school funding support without knowing (at best) or not caring (at worst) what that state funding support meant to the poorest school districts which simply did not have the property tax base to make up the difference.

The way the axe came down on Chester Upland’s students would have meant locking the doors and wishing the children luck in finding a new school. Except the heroes of Chester Upland, those teachers and support professionals and their union decided, without permission from anyone, not to let that happen.

"We are adults; we will make a way," Sara Ferguson told her local paper this month. "The students don't have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job."

They decided to keep working even though the district told them they could not guarantee them they would ever be paid. The heroes of Chester Upland understood the risk. Their union understood the risk. But the heroes of Chester Upland were not about to give up on their students or the community that was counting on them.

They also weren’t going to sit idly by and hope that someone rescued them. They got to work through their union to get the word out as to what the Governor’s cuts had done to poor children.

They talked to the press. They got the attention of some big national programs like the Ellen Show and the Ed Show. Sara spoke with calm, but with all her heart why she could not abandon her students and why she and her colleagues were going to stay and fight for them.
Her union did a full-court press on state politicians. They called on the public to put pressure on those politicians to find a solution. And finally relief – albeit temporary relief – came in the form of emergency aid that should carry the district through (hopefully) the rest of the year.

Politicians were shamed into keeping the doors open in Chester Upland by brave heroes who stood by each other to show a united front to their students and send them the essential message: You are worth fighting for. The parents stood with them. The public stood with them. Teachers and support professionals all over the country stood with them. But the rest of the story is left to tell.

The rest of the story is about a school funding system could allow such a thing to happen in the first place. What message does it send to poor children that their schools are funded so poorly that their teachers have to offer to work without pay while rich districts would never face such a dilemma?

Chester Upland and its brave employees dodged a bullet that was aimed directly at them and their students. But why did they have to?

Adequate and equitable school funding is a civil rights issue. Neither Chester Upland nor any school district in the country should ever again be the victim of the gamesmanship of a governor, mayor or any politician. We will be fighting this fight again and again until we address the funding systems in our states that allow Haves and Have-Nots within our public schools.

Chester Upland is blessed with many lion-hearted professionals who stood ready to sacrifice for their students. But the fight must not stop there. Unions and parents and civil rights groups and people who care about justice for all students have to roar like lions until the politicians get it. Every child deserves a great public school and it takes dollars to make that happen. The cold, hard fact is that it will take cold, hard cash to get to a happy ending for every school and a happy beginning for every student.

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