Just when it can't get any worse ...

High school students, including some from Central High leading the way, rallying last month at City Hall for more funding. For the fourth consecutive year, the district must beg for help.
High school students, including some from Central High leading the way, rallying last month at City Hall for more funding. For the fourth consecutive year, the district must beg for help. (AKIRA SUWA /Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 09, 2014

The Philadelphia School District crisis has dragged on for so long that the district now appears more crisis than school. Superintendent William Hite has said, "Discussing how we will make ends meet should not be our annual rite of spring."

But it is, for the fourth exhausting, anxious spring in a row, where almost no one involved looks good.

The crisis plays like an extended production of Oliver Twist. The district is again forced to beg for more - except more will barely get the schools to dismal. They've already been stripped bare.

This spring, the district requested aid for this fiscal year and next. There aren't enough funds for either while politicians in City Hall and Harrisburg dither and point fingers at each other. They happen to excel at both.

One legislator told me, in a classic bit of political irony and repetition, "In the end, we always find the money in the end," which is another way of saying the whole crisis is political farce, played out at the expense of families and district employees.

Personally, I'd like to lock the key players in an overcrowded classroom, without air-conditioning, until they secure appropriate funds and prevent this drama from ever occurring again.

The problem is grade-school simple: The schools fail, the city fails. Graduates will be poorly prepared to land remunerative work, resulting in less tax revenue for Philadelphia or Pennsylvania, the rare state without a fair-funding formula.

There is nothing fair about this model for any school district in a Pennsylvania city, large or small, with a majority of economically disadvantaged students. (In Philadelphia, it's a staggering 87 percent.) Invest now in our future, or pay later in social services and law enforcement with less revenue.

Universally praised, Hite arrived at the school's worst possible moment. He's been here only since 2012 but working at the district must feel like dog years. "I'm fighting for things that children should be taking for granted," he said after another confounding Council meeting, predictable for its lack of urgency.

'Staring at a cliff'

Hite must tire of politicians saying how much they like him while denying the district the necessary funds. City Council President Darrell Clarke, with his pronounced passion for real estate, did so last week before berating Hite for failing to sell empty school buildings, which the district is in the process of doing.

Those funds won't be enough. A district official told me: "We're staring at a cliff. We need $216 million to get to treading water." Last week, after way too many diversions and discourse, Council approved $120 million in sales tax revenues - but the district needs $75 million more from Council, and $440 million overall just to add back some basic supports.

Former Democratic City Councilman Bill Green, who will never win a political popularity contest, is the governor-appointed chair of the School Reform Commission, an oversight organization many Philadelphians would like to obliterate. In Council, Green voted against school budget requests that he is now adamantly fighting to secure. If little else, his former colleagues have a talent for elephantine memories. And whatever their former colleague Mayor Nutter is for, they're against it.

'This level'

In the Capitol, the governor and legislators long turned their backs on Philadelphia and other cities like Harrisburg whose schools are dependent on their support.

"I've been around for a while, and I don't ever recall this level of acrimony," Clarke told me. "The fiscal issues have never been this large."

To do the right thing for children, how do you get politics out of the equation? Without hesitation, Clarke said: "That is never going to happen."

You would be hard-pressed to devise a more broken model, but in the midst of an election year, Gov. Corbett may be moved finally to do the right thing. The legislature, too. With Pennsylvania facing a $1 billion tax shortfall, a cigarette tax would benefit state coffers and Philadelphia schools.

Besides, they can't dither forever. Summer beckons and legislators, in the city and Harrisburg, are as eager as students to start their paid summer breaks.

This anguished rite of spring is reminiscent of another drama, Murder on the Orient Express, where the death of the district comes as a result of multiple guilty hands. Turns out that failure can have many, self-interested fathers.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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