Corbett indicates Phila. schools could get a cash advance

Gov. Corbett had been noncommittal on providing school funding.
Gov. Corbett had been noncommittal on providing school funding.
Posted: August 06, 2014

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett on Monday signaled that he was willing to advance millions of dollars in state education money to Philadelphia schools to ensure that they open on time next month.

The pledge, through a spokesman, came hours after Corbett met with legislators in an unsuccessful bid to get them to return and vote on a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to fund city schools.

"This is about putting children of Philadelphia first," spokesman Jay Pagni said. "The governor is prepared, if need be, to advance funding once the final request is made of him."

It was not clear, however, that the move would avert the doomsday scenario city officials have predicted: layoff notices to more than 1,000 district employees next week and a delayed start for 131,000 students next month.

Philadelphia officials have said an advance from the governor would only be a temporary fix that would still leave the district in dire economic straits this year.

"The problem with this is, it's not new money," said Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald. "What the School District needs is new additional funds."

Corbett had been noncommittal on the funding since leaders in the Republican-controlled House on Thursday canceled plans to return this week and vote on a cigarette tax that could plug the School District's $81 million budget shortfall. Instead, the Republican governor called legislative leaders to a closed-door meeting to discuss that decision and other matters, including his insistence that they consider changes to the state pension system.

But lawmakers emerged from the two-hour meeting Monday seemingly unswayed. House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) said he had no plans to call the chamber back into session before Sept. 15 - the end of its summer recess - to consider the measure that would authorize the cigarette tax.

Chances for its passage dimmed last week after some legislators said they had second thoughts about giving Philadelphia schools aid that other districts statewide would not get, and others said they would not or could not return to Harrisburg in time for a vote.

Smith said he canceled the planned voting session because he no longer believed he had the votes to pass the bill. He blamed amendments inserted by the Senate.

The House had approved the cigarette tax in a fiscal code bill it passed with the state budget in early July. The Senate then amended the bill to include hotel taxes for other jurisdictions before it broke for the summer, sending the reconstituted measure back to the House for a final vote.

The turnaround by the House has outraged city and School District officials.

"It is a sad moment in Pennsylvania history that the speaker and majority leader of the House of Representatives could not find one hour on one day in the month of August to come in session and go to work so schoolchildren can go to school," Mayor Nutter said Monday.

Any request to Corbett for an advance in funding must come from Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green.

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said Monday that school leaders "remain hopeful" and will keep lobbying lawmakers to reconsider.

"We will do so until Aug. 15, when we must make a decision when and how we go about opening the school year for our students," he said.

The city's 214 schools are set to open Sept. 8.

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke urged the legislature to return as it initially promised. He said an advance from the governor was insufficient.

"The only way Pennsylvania lawmakers can give Dr. Hite the assurance he will have sufficient funds to open safe and adequately staffed schools this September is by increasing revenue to the district - in this case, by allowing the City of Philadelphia to raise a cigarette tax on ourselves," Clarke said in a statement.

The meeting in the governor's Capitol office was the first between top legislative Republicans and Corbett since he vetoed $72 million from their funding early last month, sparking a round of angry news releases and still-active talk in the Senate of a lawsuit against the governor.

Drew Crompton, chief counsel for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), described the extended meeting as cordial and it said covered a number of topics in addition to the cigarette tax, including an overhaul of the government pension system - the governor's top initiative.

Crompton, who attended the meeting, called it "a good, solid meeting."

While the legislators and governor met, roughly 70 teachers, parents, and students from Philadelphia protested outside legislators' offices before joining Democratic lawmakers at a rally in the Capitol Rotunda.

Several Philadelphia lawmakers criticized the GOP delay and said the district needs the tax approved swiftly to ensure continued funding.

"This is an all-time low," said Rep. Mark Cohen (D, Phila.). "We need action. We need action now."


aworden@phillynews.com

717-783-2584 @inkyamy

www.inquirer.com/phillydawg

www.inquirer.com/commonwealthconfidential

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Kristen A. Graham, Troy Graham, Chris Hepp, and Gideon Bradshaw.

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