Nutter, Clarke disagree on solution for schools

Mayor Nutter (left) and Council President Darrell L. Clarke (center) differ on allocating prospective bailout money.
Mayor Nutter (left) and Council President Darrell L. Clarke (center) differ on allocating prospective bailout money. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 11, 2013

At the heart of the impasse that Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. says is threatening his ability to start class on time this fall are two men - Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke - who have known each other for decades and rarely seem to agree.

Their latest difference of opinion centers on part of a state bailout for the schools that calls for the city to borrow $50 million against future sales tax collections.

Clarke says the state gave Philadelphia a "bad deal" without consulting key city politicians, and he wants to change the terms of the bailout.

Nutter says that he doesn't like the deal either, but that the School District of Philadelphia is in such dire straits that Council needs to back the plan now. Hite has to book the $50 million by Friday to start classes Sept. 9 "on time and safe," the mayor said.

Nutter said Friday that negotiations on education funding have been going on all summer "out of the public eye."

But on Thursday, when Hite made the extraordinary announcement that he might postpone the opening of 212 district schools, the rift with Clarke was laid bare.

Two hours after Hite spoke, Nutter called the superintendent's comments "one of the most chilling statements that I've ever heard a school leader . . . make."

Clarke, on the other hand, said he was "comfortable with what Dr. Hite did."

As for the mayor?

"Mayor's entitled to his position," Clarke said. "Our position is our position."

Nutter and Clarke met again Friday afternoon, along with State Sens. Anthony Hardy Williams and Vincent Hughes, and State Rep. Cherelle L. Parker. They emerged without a deal, but with less biting rhetoric.

"I am certainly that much more optimistic than I was yesterday," Nutter said.

"There's never a major issue between the mayor and myself," Clarke said. "I wouldn't characterize it as a clash. The legislative branch of government and the administrative branch . . . from time to time have different ideas."

The two have a well-documented strained relationship. Clarke was the protégé of Mayor John F. Street, a political enemy of Nutter's. Nutter's 2007 mayoral campaign traded on public weariness of the corruption scandals that marred Street's administration.

In 2011, Nutter backed two other candidates for Council president before Clarke locked up the support. Ever since, the two have been answering questions about whether they could get along.

Nutter said Friday that he and Clarke agree that schools need to be funded but disagree on how to do that.

"I'm going to appeal to the news media to try to resist every natural inclination and try not to drive wedges and find disagreement," he said. "Look at areas where there is agreement."

But there is unquestionably disagreement. Clarke objects to the state bailout package that calls for the city to devote $120 million from its extra 1 percent sales tax to the schools, starting next fiscal year. The 1 percent is expected to generate more than $140 million next year.

The rest of the money would go toward the underfunded municipal pension system and paying back the $50 million in borrowing for the schools.

Clarke would rather split the extra 1 percent evenly between the schools and the pension system. Nutter said that he was inclined to support that plan, but that now was not the time to fight that battle.

Clarke also floated the idea that the city might pay the School District $50 million for surplus real estate that could later be sold to pay back the city.

Nutter pointed out that the district was already counting on raising $28 million over the next five years by selling vacant buildings. For the city to buy school buildings now would "put a pretty significant hole" in the district's five-year budget, he said.

Clarke has said the idea was not even his. The administration and the School District developed the plan so the city could turn the borrowed $50 million over to the schools as a one-time grant.

Exchanging the money for school buildings would allow the city to circumvent a state requirement that prohibits one-time grants to the schools.

Nutter and Clarke promised on Friday to work through the weekend and into next week to reach some kind of resolution.

"Business is business. Personal is personal. We're still friends," Clarke said. "In the business perspective, there are going to be times when we don't agree."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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