School District and Council still apart on more money

Posted: May 23, 2014

After three tense hours of questioning by City Council on Wednesday, the Philadelphia School District seemed no closer to getting the $216 million - or more - it needs to open schools in the fall just maintaining this year's abysmal status quo.

Without the cash, the district would have to lay off more than 1,000 employees, mostly teachers, and increase some class sizes to 40 or more.

The district is counting on $120 million from an extension of an extra 1 percent sales tax, but it's also asking for an additional $75 million that would likely come from a new $2-a-pack cigarette tax - which requires approval by the legislature.

At a continuation of a hearing on the district's budget, Council President Darrell L. Clarke emphasized that he was committed to $120 million in new recurring funding for city schools.

But there is disagreement about how to get there.

Clarke is in favor of devoting the proceeds of the sales-tax extension to the district for only this year.

Afterward, he wants to shift part of the revenue to the city's underfunded pension system. District officials oppose splitting the funds.

Clarke acknowledged that it was in the district's best interest to have representatives from Council, the city, and the district travel together to Harrisburg to present a united front, particularly on the cigarette tax.

"It might have to be in separate cars," Clarke joked, "but that's OK."

School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green, who until February was a member of Council, suggested that the parties agree on the $120 million and shift a conversation about splitting the money in future years if a fair funding formula is adopted by the Legislature.

Clarke would not commit to that and, in an interview after the hearing, said Green has significantly changed his position: When he was a fiscally conservative member of Council, Green pushed back against district calls for more money from the city.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. noted that for several years running, the city has come up with significant funds for the district, while the state - whose education cuts are largely responsible for the schools' current straits - has not been nearly as generous.

"Yeah, they're worth it," Jones said of the city's children, "but they have to be worth it to the governor, too."

Both Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and Green emphasized that the schools were in poor condition now, and that delays in action had the potential to harm students.

"Our best schools will start to deteriorate over time," Green said, "and our worst schools will get worse over time."

The state's gloomy revenue projections may mean that the district could face a deficit not of $216 million, but of as much as $246 million, Green said.

Hite said he could not imagine what he might have to ask principals to do.

Some have told him they don't have space for 40 students or more in a classroom, one possibility if funds don't come through.

"They don't think their schools will be safe," Hite said. "They don't think they'll be providing a quality education."

While he was encouraged by the seriousness with which Council regards the district's funding situation, Hite said, he is frustrated at the lack of resolution.

"I am still very anxious about the fact that we're getting closer and closer to the deadline by which we need to make decisions about staffing," Hite said. "It just creates so much nervous energy and anxiety across the city."

215-854-5146 @newskag

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