The Philly schools merry-go-round

Posted: August 07, 2014

SO NOW Philly schoolkids, parents, teachers, et al get to watch a game of political chicken - played out on a merry-go-round.

To catch you up, our "full-time" Legislature refused this week to interrupt its two-month-plus summer vacation to authorize a $2-per-pack cigarette tax for schools.

Without the tax, Mayor Nutter and district Superintendent William Hite say schools can't open.

The Republican House blames the Republican Senate: Oh, we passed the tax and they put other stuff in the bill.

The Republican Senate blames the Republican House: Oh, we're willing to talk but they won't come back.

A meeting on Monday between Gov. Corbett, who supports the tax, and GOP leaders produced nothing, of course.

Another example of leadership in action.

Now neither Republican-run chamber is due in session until mid-September.

But that doesn't stop a gaggle of Democrats, advocacy groups and others from issuing statements calling for the Legislature to return right now.

"I call on Republican House leaders to schedule this bill for a vote without further delay," says Philly Democratic Rep. Brian Sims.

"If there are members of the House that don't like House Bill 1177 as written, let them come to Harrisburg and fix it," says Philly Democratic Sen. Mike Stack.

And around and around we go.

I should note that Republican leaders haven't done anything that Democrats want since Vince Fumo went to prison.

So it appears the city and school district face two options.

Wait and see whether to accept a possible (likely) advance of state money already approved as part of the budget.

Corbett's office says such action is under serious consideration.

Or play hardball and say no, that doesn't solve anything, that's the same inadequate money that created the need for the cigs tax, so we're not opening in September.

To highlight what that option might entail, Philly Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes scheduled a hearing in City Council chambers this morning.

"We need to make sure the broader public understands the seriousness of this situation," Hughes tells me.

Nutter, Hite and others were to testify about what a legislative aide calls "the logistical consequences" of shuttered schools (read: scare all affected parties in hopes they turn up political heat).

Does Hughes, Nutter, Hite or anyone think a hearing in Philadelphia moves state lawmakers back to Harrisburg?

If so, I've got a statewide liquor system to sell them.

But shut down schools? Really?

The last person who threatened closing schools for lack of funding (Superintendent David Hornbeck in 1998) triggered a reaction that cost him his job and led the state to take over the district.

Yet staring down an Aug. 15 deadline to announce layoffs or go/no-go school openings, a few public officials with six-figure salaries seem intent on holding thousands of ordinary Philly families in limbo.

There is an alternative, Messrs. Nutter and Hite.

Don't scare working parents and school employees. Don't play political chicken. Don't paint disastrous scenarios for the city.

Open schools on time with an advance on money already in place. Then work to get your cigs tax. Or a broader, statewide cigs tax that also gives revenue to other districts and avoids pitting the city against the rest of the state. Or some arrangement giving GOP leaders something they want in trade for what you want.

And, yeah, I know there are no guarantees.

Such is life.

But if you have no faith in your ability - to save money, get new revenue, collect back taxes, work with a governor who could use some positive education-funding news or with a Legislature often willing to deal - then stay on your merry-go-round.

Just don't punish families and kids while you ride in circles.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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