Council and SRC discuss finances, rhetoric

Posted: May 04, 2012

In advance of a critical budget session next week, City Council members pressed the School Reform Commission Thursday to back away from a warning that the city schools may be unable to open next fall without $94 million in new funds from city real estate taxes.

But the commission chairman, Pedro Ramos, politely stood his ground.

“We’re at a crossroads … and it feels like there’s a big pile of cans sitting there in the middle of the road, and it’s every can that’s been kicked down the road to this point,” Ramos told Council members. “There’s no more space to kick cans farther down the road.”

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, the chair of Council’s education committee, set up the meeting, over sandwiches in Council’s caucus room, trying to defuse some of the tension between the School District and Council members before the district’s budget hearing next week.

Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. was steamed at a dire description delivered this week by the school system’s chief recovery officer, Thomas Knudsen.

At a district budget hearing Tuesday night, Knudsen said that without the new money projected from a citywide property reassessment, “it is not clear that we could, in fact, open schools this fall.”

While he supported giving the School District the additional money, Goode said, “if there’s not a correction of a statement like that, about schools not opening, it creates problems for us, in terms of whether or not there are scare tactics. … People basically go wild over a quote like that.”

Ramos began to make a case that Knudsen’s quote was “more nuanced” than the Inquirer’s headline, which read “More cash or no school, official says”.

Goode jumped in and said he was looking for two things. “We need to say publicly, the schools are definitely open. … And we need to say if we return to a 60/40 split [the sharing of real estate revenues between the School District and city, which would provide the $94 million in new revenue the schools are seeking], we’re not coming back to you anytime soon.”

“I hear you, Councilman,” Ramos said. But instead of making those commitments, Ramos told Council about the flying lessons of another recently-appointed SRC member, Feather Houstoun, formerly a state welfare secretary and president of the William Penn Foundation.

“People don’t know she’s a pilot and trained to fly planes on instruments,” Ramos said. One time during a flight lesson her plane dropped 100 feet, even though she had done everything correctly.

“Her flight instructor said, ‘Feather, it wasn’t your fault. But it’s your problem,’” Ramos recounted.

Ramos noted that four of the five SRC members are newly-appointed, now going through their first budget process, along with four new City Council members. “We are at that point where it is our problem,” Ramos said. “Things from the past were pushed into the future and we’re there. It is collectively our problem.”

Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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