Sources: Clarke pushing new plan for school $$$

Posted: May 16, 2014

CITY COUNCIL President Darrell Clarke is pushing a new version of the hotly debated city sales-tax legislation that could provide more money to Philadelphia's struggling schools and pension system, sources with knowledge of the negotiations said.

Clarke's proposal, which is still evolving, would send the district almost all of the tax's expected revenue next year. Then, over three to five years, the pension fund's share of the money would gradually increase until there is a 50/50 split.

If adopted, the plan would be a compromise between the immediate 50/50 split Clarke had wanted and the version passed by state lawmakers last year. Gov. Corbett orchestrated that deal, which sent the first $120 million in revenue to the district and whatever's left - a small sum that would grow substantially over time - to the pension fund.

If nothing happens, a 1 percentage point city sales-tax increase (to 8 percent overall) will expire in July, and the district will miss out on an enormous pot of money that it is counting on to climb out of its $216 million deficit.

The debate over how to use a relatively small tax may seem petty, but it has gripped city politics for a year and helped to stymie talks on other school-funding proposals, including a $2-per-pack city tax on cigarettes that is lingering in GOP-controlled Harrisburg.

Council has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks from school advocates who want the full $120 million to go to the district, which has closed dozens of schools in the last three years and is so short-staffed that some nurses and guidance counselors are assigned to cover multiple buildings and thousands of students.

Clarke's new plan, however, may not quell the concerns of those activists, who have been showing up to almost every Council meeting this spring.

"The school district is in an immediate crisis and it needs these resources and it won't need them for just one year," said Donna Cooper, president of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. The bill, she said, "does not have a material effect on the pensions but it has a dramatic effect on the schools."

Led by Clarke, city officials have complained that they are taking the brunt of a funding crisis that resulted from a $1 billion drop-off in statewide funding from state and federal sources. The city, meanwhile, has increased taxes and other aid for the district to the tune of more than $150 million per year.

Corbett this year is proposing a relatively modest $29 million increase in state funding for Philadelphia schools.

Clarke's new plan would require the state General Assembly to revise the authorizing legislation it passed last summer - an unlikely scenario, given that many Republican lawmakers are angry with Council's refusal to adopt the Corbett plan last year.

The House GOP leadership has indicated that further requests from the city are unlikely to gain traction without significant givebacks from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers or further moves by the School Reform Commission to force labor concessions.

Mayor Nutter, who sources said has discussed the issue with Clarke several times this week, is urging him to include a fall-back provision that would ensure the $120 million goes to the schools next year even if Harrisburg doesn't act.

The deadline for adopting new city tax measures for next year is June 30.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN


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