Inquirer Editorial: Clarke's gamble is too risky

Clarke MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Clarke MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Posted: May 19, 2014

As hard as it is to believe, City Council is about to throw away a $120 million funding stream for Philadelphia's destitute public schools, which are understaffed, underachieving, and unsafe.

That money was authorized a year ago by the legislature when it extended an emergency increase of the city's sales tax to 8 percent. Not only would the extension generate $120 million for struggling schools, but the legislation also set aside an escalating portion of the revenue for city pensions.

Inexplicably, given the School District's dire fiscal situation, that split didn't satisfy Council President Darrell Clarke. He wants half of the new revenue to go to the pension fund and insists that he can get Harrisburg to approve his idea.

That's highly unlikely, say Republicans who control both houses of the legislature. Just as unlikely is passage of a city cigarette tax, which Clarke assumes will help fund the schools.

Ignoring those realities, Clarke introduced a Council bill Thursday to begin collecting the higher sales tax. But the bill assumes the legislature will eventually agree with Clarke and allow a gradual increase in the pension fund's share of revenue. Because the bill doesn't include contingencies in case the legislature won't approve that split, the schools could end up with nothing.

Clarke's insistence makes even less sense when one considers an analysis by city finance officials. It shows only a one- or two-year difference between the time it would take his plan to restore the pension fund to good health and what would be accomplished under the sales-tax plan already approved by the legislature. That's a blink of an eye to a pension fund.

Meanwhile, as Clarke pits the interests of the city's seniors against those of its children, the schools must prepare for the worst. Without additional funding, they will see more teachers, aides, nurses, counselors, and security staff lose their jobs. Schoolchildren will fall even further behind academically.

Clarke's foolish gamble asks this city to choose between children and retirees when no such choice has to be made. If he thinks his my-way-or-the-highway stance will boost his political ambitions, he hasn't considered what it's doing to his reputation among parents.

Meanwhile, a stunningly gutless City Council sits. No one has proposed a bill giving the full $120 million to schools. Council should at least amend Clarke's bill so the schools are protected when his fantasy fades.

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