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Without cigarette tax, Hite says, layoffs would begin Aug. 15

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After winning a major victory in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last week, the proposed cigarette tax for Philly schools appears stalled in a game of legislative pingpong.

On Tuesday, the Senate sent the bill back to the House by adding amendments, and now the House isn't scheduled to reconsider the measure until Aug. 4.

School leaders say that leaves plans for opening schools in September in total disarray.

The School District has been counting on the $2-per-pack cigarette tax as a recurring source of funding in the face of a $93 million budget gap.

Without swift passage, Superintendent William Hite said, 1,300 staffers would be laid off and classrooms would see student-teacher ratios as high as 41 to 1.

In order to avoid what he says would be a dangerous, unsafe school system, Hite has also been considering saving money by truncating the state-mandated 180-day school year.

"I've indicated over and over again that I have no intention of putting 40 children in a classroom. I have no intention of reducing services beyond where they've been reduced," he said Wednesday.

Hite stressed that, without additional funding, major decisions would need to be made by mid-August.

"If in fact we don't have a path forward by Aug.15 ... we would have to begin sending out layoff notices, and those layoff notices would be based on whatever [money] we have or do not have at that point in time," he said.

A spokesman for House Republicans said it would be difficult to approve the cigarette tax as passed by the Senate because of provisions jammed into the omnibus legislation.

In an interview Tuesday, House GOP spokesman Stephen Miskin criticized the Senate for adding other provisions to the bill, including authorizing hotel tax increases in municipalities such as York and allocating funds for City Revitalization and Improvement Zones.

"It will very difficult to pass House Bill 1177 if it is loaded with all these hotel taxes and new CRIZs which could cost the state up to $70 million," said Miskin. "We certainly preferred legislation focused on quality education for the kids in Philadelphia."

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Kevin McCorry

Kevin is WHYY/NewsWorks' senior education writer.