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Despite entreaties, Clarke is firm on splitting sales tax between schools, pensions




At hearings this week, School District leaders, education advocacy groups, and others have been imploring Philadelphia's City Council to swallow hard and do what the state legislature authorized it to do: extend the 1 percent surcharge on the sales tax and devote the first $120 million to the city's schools.

District leaders have already budgeted the money, and each day that goes by without a guarantee of recurring dollars, they pointed out, increases the chances of another school year marked by instability and disinvestment.

Council President Darrell Clarke has given his answer: No.

In a letter to Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, Clarke reiterated his position that the money should be split between the District and the city's ailing pension fund.

"As I have stated previously and consistently, City Council's primary responsibility is to Philadelphia taxpayers," Clarke wrote. "That is why our alarmingly low pension fund balance is of equal concern as the School District of Philadelphia's fiscal challenges."

He dismissed the results of an actuarial study showing that the split would be devastating to the District, but only speed up reaching the goal of 80 percent funding of pension reserves by a year or two. He said the study was based on flawed assumptions and projections.

"It would be irresponsible for the City to treat them as facts," he said. 

Clarke said that he would support giving the District $120 million next year and then gradually reducing the amount to a 50-50 split between the District and pensions.

The problem, however, is that making any changes to what the legislature approved would require Harrisburg to act again. State leaders have been showing impatience with Philadelphia's failure to enact the sales tax, which is hindering efforts to get the state to free up more money for the schools.

"Only the amended State Legislation (50-50 split) guarantees new, reliable and recurring revenue to the Pension Fund," Clarke's letter states. "To increase funding for [the District] with no reliable framework for shoring up the Pension Fund is to gamble with the City's long-term fiscal solvency."

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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.