Schools open under ongoing budget crisis

Philadelphia public schools open today under a cloud of budget woes and uncertainy.
Published : September 08, 2014

Mayor Michael Nutter and schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite spoke on Aug. 6 about the need for Harrisburg to approve a city cigarette tax to help fund Philadelphia schools, at a hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee at City Hall. Credit: Charles Mostoller Mayor Michael Nutter and schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite spoke on Aug. 6 about the need for Harrisburg to approve a city cigarette tax to help fund Philadelphia schools, at a hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee at City Hall. Credit: Charles Mostoller

 

On Aug. 5, Mayor Michael Nutter addressed the Democratic state Senate Appropriatons Committee on the importance of passing a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to help fund the School District of Philadelphia, which is still pending.

 

Nutter told the committee about the $325 million in new revenue the city has come up with through new taxes, along with 5,000 layoffs, closing 32 schools and reducing administrative costs by 50 percent to close the budget deficit.

 

But the usually composed mayor seemed overcome with emotion as he voice rose to a shout describing the conditions in schools.

 

"We are having a conversation about trying to maintain inadequate, to fill a hole. Not one new person, not one new service, not one new program, not one new class -- nothing new," said Nutter, voice thundering through City Council chambers. "Same old thing from last year, which was horrible. That's what we're talking about."

Schools open on Monday, but without passage of the cigarette tax, Superintendent William Hite has warned that further budget cuts and layoffs may be announced this fall. The tax is expected to bring in more than $80 million a year, all for Philly public schools.

But Hite has also said that to begin rebuilding schools -- with resources like full-time nurses and guidance counselors, arts and music programs -- the district needs a further $225 million in funds.

"I don't see, frankly speaking, where that $200-plus million could be made up on the local level, so we would clearly be looking towards the state for its contribution," said Council President Darrell Clarke. "We're tapped out. We can't continue to increase taxes and only put revenue in the School District because the state has failed to live up to it's share of funding."

The reelection campaign of Gov. Tom Corbett did not specifically state how those funds could be raised but said that Corbett believes teachers' union concessions and pension reform could help the district.

"[Corbett] is fighting for the future of the children of Philadelphia because they should not be held responsible for the mistakes past leaders made in mismanaging the school district," the campaign said in an email. “However, the Philadelphia public sector teachers union bosses – who will not make any concessions including their refusal to contribute one penny to their taxpayer-funded Cadillac health care plans – are once again blaming someone else for the crisis they bear responsibility in creating."

The campaign of Tom Wolf, Democratic candidate for governor, said in an email that if elected, Wolf would invest more in education funds.

"If we are going to adequately fund education and rebuild our economy, Tom Wolf knows that starts with commonsense solutions like a 5 percent severance tax [on natural gas extraction via fracking], charter school reform, instituting a fair funding formula, and closing unfair tax loopholes," the Wolf campaign said.

"Will it be simply a matter of him saying 'I’m gonna enact a tax on Marcellus shale,' and it happens because he says it?" Clarke asked. "Absolutely not. But at least the conversation, in terms of additional funding, starts in the governor’s office."

Either way, Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, a philanthropic group that invests in public, private and charter schools, said that rising pension costs at schools could for example take up all projected cigarette tax revenue within three or four years.

"Neither the city nor the state is delivering stable, predictable funding for schools," Gleason said. "I support finding new revenue to pay for schools, but politically it's always hard to raise taxes."

Different strategy?


Some leaders think more systemic change is needed.

State Rep. John Taylor said he thinks Philadelphia schools might benefit from an elected school board with the power to raise taxes, as is common across the country. He said such a board could consolidate school funds decision-making and responsibility.

"All the discussion —it won't be council, it won't be the Office of Property Assessment, it won't be the mayor, it would be school board members," Taylor said. "Who do you blame? ... We blame that guy, the head of the school board."

Clarke said he doesn't support that idea, as elected offices already exist which have the power to raise taxes.

 
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