DN Editorial: Raising the bar

Schools need $50 million in 1 week to stay on schedule

Posted: August 09, 2013

THIRTY-ONE days just became seven.

If City Council doesn't move on certifying $50 million in proceeds from the sales tax to the School District by next Friday, Superintendent William Hite says he will be unable to open the schools on Sept. 9.

So the daily countdown of time remaining in the standoff between the schools and the state and city lawmakers who have fallen short of finding the money the schools need to open has just been shortened. More to the point, Hite has finally introduced the nuclear option.

That couldn't have been easy, but it was clearly the right move. Within an hour of the press conference, both Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke announced their own press conferences.

Neither, however, we're waving $50 million checks around. Nutter said we must all work together to make sure schools open, and Clarke proposed putting school property up for sale and having the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (managed by PIDC) front the district $50 million in advance of those sales.

That seems at best, highly speculative. At worst, given the one-week time frame, downright cray-cray. Plus, at least some proceeds from school property sales have already been built into the school's long-term budgeting.

To review: in March, the district announced a $304 million funding gap. It sought $120 million from the state, $60 million from the city and the rest in teacher-union concessions.

In June, a wobbly package of funding that might or might not reach $140 million was put together in Harrisburg, but lawmakers recessed leaving many of those pieces still in question.

The $50 million that is immediately at issue comes from a permanent 1 percent hike in the city sales tax; the state wants it all to go to the schools, but Clarke wants to divide it between schools and the city's pension fund.

Maybe that's a good argument to have, but the reality of the school district means that they need more than a conversation to begin hiring back some of the thousands of laid-off teachers, assistant principals, aides and others required to actually operate the schools. Hite's line in the sand yesterday was prompted by his concern about the safety of students descending on buildings without proper adult presence, and without certification that $50 million is coming, he'll delay school's opening.

Do we need to itemize how disastrous this could be? Working parents will have to figure out new child care options. Children will lose academically, and many will also lose more fundamental things, like food. (Thousands of poor students get free breakfast and lunch at school, and many struggle to have enough to eat when school is out.)

We will be a city that can't afford to open its schools on time.

Parents should continue to put pressure on City Council for action, but don't forget state lawmakers; they are out of session, but many are in their district offices.

If there was ever a time to show vocal support for public education, this is it.

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