City Council yesterday proved once again that Philadelphia’s schoolchildren come second to politicking. Instead of following through on its promise to guarantee the District at least $50 million -- a promise it made last August, when Superintendent William Hite refused to open schools otherwise -- City Council’s finance committee moved forward with a bill to halve that amount to $27 million.
It seems inconceivable for Council to behave in this manner, especially at a time when District finances have never been more dire. If City Council doesn’t move on filling the basic budget gap, the District will be forced to pass an obscene budget that will lay off staff and see class sizes go through the roof. The PR damage and the loss of internal capacity at the District is not something that can be made up even if Council were to later piece together funds over the summer.
What’s even more disappointing is that last summer’s $50 million promise -- the subject of all this bickering -- is a one-time stopgap measure. It doesn’t even begin to address sustainable funding for schools.
It is fundamentally City Council’s job to ensure that there are no additional cuts to the District’s budget for next year. That means delivering an additional $96 million over and above the sales tax extension that has already been approved. The state share should then be focused on restoring services to schools.
We remind City Council that they hold responsibility for the consequences of a doomsday budget that has caused irreparable damage to our schools and put children in harm’s way.
City Council members had opportunities to find sustainable revenue. Instead, they squashed a proposed Use and Occupancy Tax bill that had a lot of support from communities. They failed to move on the sales tax legislation until this year and punted to Harrisburg a proposal for a cigarette tax that, a year later, has shown no advancement. Yesterday, they left on the table an additional $28 million that already had a built in repayment mechanism with no hardship on the city.
Meanwhile a recent report by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia showed that one in five District students are involved in the juvenile justice or DHS systems. These are the most vulnerable of young people in the most formative stages of their lives, and we are letting them down over political wheeling and dealing. Council members have made it a point to talk about racial injustice for children of color and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. But inaction on school budgets practically ensures that such abuses continue.
City Council needs to move $96 million, and it needs to move it now. There are a host of possibilities, including:
- Fulfill the promise to borrow $55 million for the schools: $28 million
- Agree to shift the millage rate to restore a 60 percent proportional share of property taxes for schools. This won’t raise taxes and guarantees schools a sustainable and recurring source of revenue: $53 million
- Demand that the revenue from the pending sale of 45 new taxicab licenses (which sell for up to $500,000 apiece) goes to the schools and NOT the Parking Authority coffers: $18-22 million
There is no shortage of opportunities. There is a shortage of leadership and action. City Council cannot make up for Harrisburg’s failures, but it can promise that Philadelphia’s children won’t be hurt further. To do any less is a failure of leadership that none of us should forget at next year’s city elections.
The clock is ticking, City Council and Mayor Nutter.
Helen Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.