At the end of the last day of testimony in the Chester-Upland trial, Judge Baylson issued findings of fact, concluding that the many special education students in CUSD did not receive a free and appropriate education as required by federal law, though he was not sure whether he could make the finding on a class-wide basis. He also found that the District is operating and has for years operated under serious financial distress — what he termed a ‘cost squeeze’ — with costs rising and revenues decreasing.
Judge Baylson found witnesses for both parties to be credible, and in fact found them to be telling much the same story — that Chester-Upland is in trouble. He was especially moved, he noted, by the testimony of a parent of a special education student, and he commended the teachers and educators who testified for doing a good job under extremely difficult conditions.
He did not agree with the defendant’s contention that taxes in Chester could make up the difference, or that selling unneeded facilities (already for sale in Chester’ extremely depressed real estate market) was a viable solution.
Judge Baylson said he did not have enough evidence to conclude that Chester-Upland had cut its discretionary and extracurricular spending as much as it could to support special education, but he presented it as a legal question of how much further Chester-Upland could be required to cut its discretionary, extracurricular, and regular education services. To that end, he proposed calling the school board president or superintendent to testify about what cuts have already taken place and the feasibility of cutting further.
The judge also handed out a list of legal questions for counsel, including:
- Does a local school district have an obligation to prioritize funding special education, as may be necessary to provide a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”)?
- When a school district is not providing a FAPE to some students due to lack of funds, does it have an obligation to terminate discretionary programs so that it provides the FAPE? Is this required by federal law? Should a school district terminate those programs even if such cuts would ultimately cost that district money – i.e. because students would leave the district schools for charter schools?
- Do federal or state regulations provide any kind of framework to determine whether the special education services provided by an individual school, an entire school district, or an entire state are inadequate?