Wolf visits Council as it tangles with schools' cash woes

Posted: June 07, 2014

Tom Wolf visited Philadelphia City Council Thursday, landing squarely in the midst of a school budget crisis that many members have blamed on the state's Republican leadership.

The Democratic gubernatorial nominee was escorted past pupils from three city elementary schools displaying a quilt advocating for arts funding. Wolf then headed into a closed-door meeting in Council President Darrell L. Clarke's office.

Afterward, Wolf spoke in the caucus room to Council, staff, lobbyists and reporters, saying he was "a fan of this great city."

"I want to assure you that someone from York County . . . has a great appreciation for Philadelphia," he said. "I understand that what happens in Philadelphia is important to Pennsylvania."

His appearance, just before the start of Council's weekly meeting, drew a quick rebuke from the state Republican Party, which said Wolf and Council "chose to use a taxpayer-funded property as their secret campaign headquarters."

"City Hall should not be used as an extension of Democrat party headquarters," said Megan Sweeney, the party's communications director.

Moments after Wolf's brief remarks, Clarke said Gov. Corbett had an open invitation to visit as well. "We are truly a bipartisan Council," he said.

Although Council members have repeatedly blamed state education cuts for the School District's persistent money woes, they will need help from state Republicans this month to solve the district's $216 million budget shortfall.

District officials have asked the state to increase funding, and the city is seeking the GOP-controlled legislature's permission to enact a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to benefit the schools.

The district also needs about $35 million in city money to make ends meet this fiscal year, which runs to June 30. Mayor Nutter sent a bill to Council Thursday authorizing the city to borrow $20 million toward that goal.

The proposed amount could be changed this month. The district is working to close the sale of a handful of shuttered schools and will begin fielding offers on a number of other buildings on Monday.

"We'll be looking for bids to come in . . . and we'll go from there," Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said.

Clarke had pushed the district to fill this year's funding gap entirely by selling off vacant property, rather than relying on the city to borrow or find some other pot of money.

"They need to sell the buildings," he said Thursday. "If they choose not to do that . . . it is a self-inflicted wound."

The city, however, would still be on the hook to provide whatever funding is needed to make up the rest of the $35 million.

Council members said none of that was discussed with Wolf behind closed doors. If official business had been discussed, they would have been in violation of the city's open-meetings law.

Wolf spokesman Mark Nicastre termed the meeting "introductory" and "bipartisan."

"They talked broadly about the key issues facing Pennsylvania," he said, "and what needs to be done to make Pennsylvania the great state it can be."

Wolf was invited by Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr., an early backer. Loyalties of most other Democratic members (three of 17 are Republicans) were split across a primary field that included locally based candidates Rob McCord, Katie McGinty, and Allyson Y. Schwartz.

Polls show Wolf holding an early lead over Corbett.


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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