School officials heading back to Council with aid plea

Posted: May 05, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The leaders of the School District of Philadelphia plan to go to City Council on Monday and, for the fourth year in a row, ask for tens of millions of dollars to keep the system afloat.

The options for raising money remain largely the same from last year's unresolved debate over school funding - extending the city's extra 1 percent sales tax and enacting a $2-a-pack cigarette tax.

But a year after the district was forced to reckon with 3,800 layoffs, swollen class sizes, lack of supplies, and fewer counselors and extracurricular activities, the sense of urgency has only grown.

"It is an utter disgrace what our students and teachers and parents . . . are going through," Mayor Nutter said Thursday in an interview. "The time for action is now."

Bill Green, who last year was an at-large member of Council but now chairs the School Reform Commission, plans to tell his former colleagues there is nowhere else to cut.

"We're now talking about amputations," he said in written testimony submitted to Council.

The district needs $216 million or yet more layoffs and even bigger classes will be necessary, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said.

He has asked for about twice that amount, $440 million, from the city and the state and from labor concessions to begin restoring some of the lost services.

"Discussing how we will make ends meet should not be our annual rite of spring," Hite said in his written remarks.

Yet that rite has become the reality.

Hite is counting on $120 million from extending the city's extra 1 percent sales tax. (The state allowed the city to temporarily raise its sales tax from 7 to 8 percent during the recession.) He also has asked for $75 million more from the city.

And that's where things get complicated.

Last year, the state authorized the city to make permanent the extra sales tax, which had been set to expire July 1, and to devote the bulk of the money to the schools.

But Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he wants to split those proceeds - actually expected to be about $137 million in the next year fiscal year - with the city's public employee pension fund, which is about $5 billion underfunded.

Nutter said he would support splitting the revenue, but only if the city could enact a cigarette tax, expected to generate as much as $90 million.

The cigarette tax, though, requires state approval that few political insiders think is forthcoming from the Republican-controlled legislature.

"The schoolchildren of Philadelphia are suffering at the hands of the politics of adults," Nutter said. "If folks are comfortable accepting that as the result of their actions, then God bless them. I'm not."

Green, who was a persistent critic of the district's management before Hite came aboard, voted against two tax increases Council passed for the schools in 2012.

But he said that he has "extreme confidence" in Hite and that the district needs to know it can count on getting the $120 million.

"If we get the cigarette tax, we can debate where that money goes later," he said. "But give us certainty around the $120 million."

Clarke and Nutter have made repeated, separate trips to Harrisburg. They now are seeking approval to give the schools $120 million from the sales tax next year, but then gradually adjust the allocation to an even split with the pension system.

Last year, after raising taxes two years in a row for the schools, Council balked at another hike. That stance seems unchanged.

At a public budget hearing in West Oak Lane one rainy evening last week, Council members heard requests for more money for the cultural fund, parks and recreation, and commercial corridors, as well as the schools.

"We do have business to conduct here with revenue we get from our citizens," Clarke said.

He and other Council members have repeatedly noted that the district's money woes owe largely to funding cuts from the state, which has control over the district.

Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. said he felt like "the noncustodial parent paying child support."

"I don't have control over how they live, how they're educated," he said. "We write the check; after that there needs to be more accountability."

Clarke also is asking the state to set up a new oversight authority of five to seven members, with two members appointed by Council. SRC members are appointed by the governor and the mayor.

"The School District will always ask for more money," Clarke said. "Which is why I said at some point there needs to be another level of oversight."

But that, too, is subject to the wishes of the legislature.

News last week that the state could be facing its own budget shortfall of as much as $1 billion also cast doubt on how much help the schools could expect from Harrisburg.

"In the end, we're going to be on our own," said Councilman James F. Kenney. "All this begging, crawling, cajoling, pleading with Harrisburg - I don't think we should ever depend on it."


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@troyjgraham

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