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Despite parent, teacher pleas, City Council still not moved on District budget woes

By the Notebook on Apr 30, 2013 09:41 PM
Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education testifies; KYW's Mike DeNardo shoots pictures in the foreground.

by Bill Hangley Jr.

Day two of City Council’s education hearings was a long string of bleak predictions and passionate calls for funding from public school supporters faced with the prospect of what one parent called “trying to do the impossible with nothing.”

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell called the day’s testimony “disheartening,” but gave little indication that she and her colleagues are eager to move on meeting the Philadelphia School District’s request for $60 million in additional funding.

“The governor cut all this money,” said Blackwell, a co-chair of Council’s education committee, who along with Council President Darrell Clarke presided over the day’s testimony. “These people think that was our agenda, and it wasn’t. And they think we can solve everything, and we can’t. ... We’re all of us victims, all of us at the local level, of an agenda and a budget that we didn’t create.” 

District officials are planning to reduce school budgets to unprecedented minimums unless the state, city and the teachers’ union collectively come up with $300 million in cash or contract concessions.

But with neither state nor local officials showing any appetite to find new funding, and the union staying mum about its ongoing negotiations, Blackwell said the situation appears deadlocked. The community’s fears are entirely justified, she said, but Council still won’t raise taxes.  

“They don’t see it from our side,” she said, adding that  Council leadership will soon go into “closed session” with the mayor to keep talking. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Over five hours, one speaker after another told Council that the District’s budget plans would leave their schools virtually helpless, confirming Superintendent William Hite’s assertion that his current budget would render schools unable to deliver a basic education.

The parade of over 60 witnesses included veteran education advocates like Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education (“we arrived here by a string of conscious choices”), parent Cecelia Thompson (“please don’t let children suffer because of adult mismanagement”) and community organizer Venard Johnson (“if we can’t guarantee equity across the board, let’s just shut the whole thing down”).

Setback for the city

But most of the day’s speakers weren’t School Reform Commission regulars. They included parents, residents, students, teachers, and principals from such schools as Masterman, Moffet, Hopkinson, McCall,  Science Leadership Academy, and Meredith – a broad swath of Philadelphians predicting not only terrible outcomes for schools, but a major setback for a city seeking to build on unprecedented growth by retaining young people and families.

One was Robert Petrone, a District parent and an assistant district attorney, who called the SRC’s bare-bones budget a “de facto closing” of all Philadelphia public schools. “Imagine if you will, City Hall with just the mayor and the 17 members of City Council. No secretaries, no support staff, no aides of any kind,” he said, to a wave of applause. “How well would you be able to serve the public under these conditions?”

Another was Elizabeth Taylor, a history teacher at Masterman and parent of District students. “The implosion of the District would irreparably harm our city and our children,” she said “At my school, arguably one of the most privileged, the budget cuts will look like this: no books, no paper, no clubs, no counselors, no secretaries, and six and a half fewer teachers. Is that really an acceptable educational experience? If you sent your child to my school next year, there’d be no one to answer the phone.”

Aleisia Jones, vice president of the Gompers Elementary Home and School Association, said she appreciated Council’s aversion to granting the District a “blank check.” But she said the last few years of cuts have already left the school threadbare, with parents picking up the slack. “We tutor, we donate our own funds, we create programming,” she said. “We can’t do more than we already are.”

The threat to the city’s modest growth trend was a major theme. Robert Levin, a real estate agent, said, “I see the schools as the most important economic development tool the city has. Great schools are magnets for young professionals.  … What would Society Hill be without McCall? Queen Village without Meredith? University City without Penn Alexander?”

Katie Kelly, a Meredith Elementary parent, said that if Hite’s budget is enacted as is, the city’s recent boom could easily go bust. “This will all end if young families cannot raise their children in Philadelphia due to a lack of public schools,” she said. “Please, please, please don’t make me move to the suburbs.”

Blackwell agreed that the situation threatens to derail the recent growth trends, which have dramatically changed her West Philadelphia district.

“It really is an economic development issue,” she said. “Those people who said this could force young people not to move into the city – they told the truth. You can’t afford send your kids to private school or even Catholic school and buy a great house, too. I live in University City, and people say, ‘I can’t move here and pay for an education. I can move here if my kid goes to Penn Alexander.’ They can’t afford both.”

Don’t tax liquor, don’t tax soda

Mayor Nutter has said he supports the District’s quest for $60 million more, but Blackwell threw cold water on his latest proposal to raise about $20 million by increasing the liquor-by-the-drink tax. “That’s a big labor fight, and that’s why it’s always failed,” Blackwell said. “I don’t know if he’s going to get that again.”

She likewise rejected the notion of a sugared-drink tax, but said that Council leadership will work with the mayor to see what else could be found. “I wish we could tax something like tobacco or the casinos or something, a kind of sin tax – not the little neighborhood bars, because those are small businesses,” she said. 

For the mayor’s part, spokesman Mark McDonald confirmed that the schools shouldn’t plan on any windfalls from increased tax monies. Nascent efforts by former interim District leader Thomas Knudsen and the city’s revenue department to collect more delinquent taxes are not likely to bear fruit in time for next year, McDonald said.

“In terms of property taxes, what we have proposed is collecting the same amount [next year] that we’re collecting for fiscal 2013,” he said. Even if the higher liquor tax rate is passed, the city would still only be one-third of the way to meeting the District’s $60 million dollar goal.

“There’s a lot of ideas that are being discussed,” McDonald said.

Meanwhile, even as witnesses urged Council to find a solution to the immediate budget crisis, many argued for a return to the state funding formula that allocated money to districts based on a number of factors, including poverty, tax base, and special needs of students.   

Among them was Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who said that Gov. Corbett effectively wiped out the formula, which was developed under former governor Ed Rendell, just as it was beginning to bear fruit for Philadelphia. Now, Jordan said, “Some schools aren’t even funded enough to support their curricula. CAPA has had to cancel its annual [musical] performance – a performing arts academy, with no performing arts showcase. That’s what’s happening today.”

Like many, Jordan called for a return to local control of schools. “For 13 years, everything that’s been tried by the SRC to correct our finances has driven us further into debt, and further away from quality education,” he said.

Darren Spielman, head of the Philadelphia Education Fund , likewise called for a more rational school funding formula. So did Miles Wilson, head of the Great Schools Compact, and Carolyn Adams, board president of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Attach conditions to funds

And like several other witnesses, Adams also urged Council to attach special conditions to funding, in order to ensure that the new dollars are spent wisely. “We believe new funds should be conditioned on at least maintaining the current levels of arts instruction, sports and extracurricular activities,” as well as school nurses, Adams said. She also recommended that funding be used as a lever in ongoing teachers’ union contract talks, “to permit site-selection hiring in every school.”

And while many witnesses agreed that Council had reason to be skeptical of a district whose funding woes have been chronic, virtually all called on Council to find a way to do something – anything – to break the deadlock and head off disaster.

Towards the day’s end, Alison Stuart, a teacher at McCall, had to hold back tears as she described the impact that Hite’s budget would have on her school, citing the numbers of Asian students from nearby Chinatown who badly need extra help. “They already feel so alienated during the first year,” she said. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In this case, cry.”
Only one witness declined to ask Council to come up with more money – Bertha Simmons, a resident who called on the city to bring back prayer in schools. “Everybody needs a prayer,” she said. “The schools need a prayer.”

It was a request unwittingly echoed by Blackwell when she was asked what hope she had to offer those who fear that Hite’s “grim” budget will come to pass.

“There’s always hope. I live by faith, as they say, not by sight,” Blackwell said. “We have to believe in people, believe that through it all, some positive suggestions will come out of it. So we’ll work towards that end.”

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Comments (26)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 1, 2013 5:22 am
The city and state will provide plenty of money after the unions give back. There won't be any new money for charters in the 2013-14 year but just wait until the 2014-15 year. Since when are the charters willing to go along with the fact that in 2013-14 the SDOP has a huge deficit? They are both enemies not friends.
Submitted by Urban Educator (not verified) on May 1, 2013 5:59 am
Let me guess that you're not represented by a union so your pay is subpar and your health benefits are crappy. What do you want the unions to give back? The ability for its members to recorder quality health care? Should the unions give back the vision and dental plans? Should the unions agree that its members who go above and beyond the call of duty make less money when SDP teachers already make less then any other teachers in the region. It just amazes the absolute insanity of laying this budget disaster at the feet of hard working union members. You do not get $306 Million dollars on debt because SDP teachers make too much money. The very fact that statements like that are made are just amazing to me. The whole system is shattered and broken. Collect on the deadbeat taxpayers, start first with the corporate owners and landlords. Rescind the license of any landlord in the city that owes back taxes. Also beyond anything else a forensic audit needs to be done on all SDP expenditures for the last 15 years.
Submitted by Philly Activist (not verified) on May 1, 2013 10:56 pm
I totally agree! Let's back Wilson Goode who wants to cut back on the tax abatement. What happened to the agreement the SRC and School District agreed to about transparency? I haven't seen any of the positions and raises on the website like they had been a few years ago. So once again City Council is allowing the School District to slide back into non-transparency. I understand that people in higher positions at the SDP are wearing more than one hat, well guess what so are staff, administrators and teachers in the schools. Why is it ok for one group of workers and not another?
Submitted by Citizen (not verified) on May 2, 2013 8:22 am
Yes, the 10 year tax abatement has to go. 5 years is plenty to not pay taxes. Then, collect back taxes - that is no brainer. Go after the big non-profits and charge a city services fee. The City has no urgency re: property taxes because it doesn't rely on property taxes like the schools. There always seems to be a disconnect between City Hall and the School District. Nutter has exasperated the distance. His so called Education Csar, Shorr, is a waste of money and part of the problem - not a solution. She is in bed with the Phila. School Partnership. She, along with Nutter and the SRC, have turned over the control of the District to the so-called "Partnership" whose state mission is to privatize education.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 3, 2013 6:36 am
Cutting the abatement will do nothing to help the city. What you pick up in property taxes you lose in wage taxes, bpt and the 500 other ways the city hits up businesses. And it would severely curtail new construction. Meanwhile thre is a large wave of properties coming onto tax rolls built 10 years ago during the boom. Do you really think all hose people buying $500k townhouses would have done so if they knew there taxes would be $8k a year? Of course not. But the abatement suckered them in. For better or worse most people don't plan 10 years ahead. That is why the abatement works.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 3, 2013 8:15 am
I live in the suburbs and I pay $7K in school taxes on a home worth $350,000.00. All of that money goes directly to our schools which are run as true public schools and not charter schools operated as businesses. Why would anyone balk at paying $8K on a home worth $500,000.00? That seems awfully low if you ask me. The issue really is a fair system of taxation to support our real public schools.
Submitted by MBA to M'Ed mom (not verified) on May 3, 2013 9:25 pm
The real dearth (sp?) seema to be the property owners who haven't paid taxes for decades . Here is a recent blog with maps and amounts of properties who haven't paid their taxes, I found The map shows Amtrak deliquent over 21 tax years for over $1 million?? I just don't understand why the city allows the schools to be harmed this way?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 1, 2013 6:30 am
I am a veteran SDP teacher and applaud City Council for holding the SRC's feet to the fire regarding their fiscal responsibility in making the case for increased revenue from Harrisburg. 10 years ago the SRC was installed specifically to bring more money to Philadelphia from Harrisburg. Time for all these political appointees to step up or step out!
Submitted by Education Grad ... on May 1, 2013 7:53 pm
Anonymous, I am disappointed in Council's lack of support, but your comment makes me think differently about the words and actions of City Council. I find myself agreeing with you about City Council holding the SRC's feet to the fire. That said, I still dislike the way that Darrell Clarke et al. have spoken about the issue because they come across as being apathetic and unconcerned about the District, its students, and its employees. Rather than the nice, calm statements that Council has been giving, I would like to hear Council speak more forcefully and more bluntly. In other words, I'd like to hear Council tell Dr. Hite and company: Go talk to Harrisburg FIRST for more money; Come talk to us about more money AFTER you've spoken to the Legislature and the Governor. I do think that the City could chip in more money and should chip in more money. However, you are right that City Council's unwillingness to provide more money is holding the SRC's and Dr. Hite's feet to the fire, as you say. By playing hardball with Dr. Hite and the SRC, there is the possibility that Dr. Hite and the SRC may feel forced to ask the Commonwealth for more money. But who knows, there is probably bargaining going on behind the scenes to which the public is not party. I expect that Council may provide or be more willing to provide the District with more money AFTER the Commonwealth agrees to give the District more money. The situation for next year is so dire that if the SRC and Dr. Hite don't provide more money, this city may very well shut down...due to the frustration and anger of students, teachers, parents, and the leadership of people like Pastor Pamela Williams. Why Dr. Hite et al. haven't gone to Harrisburg yet is beyond may very well be by design. Education Grad Student
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on May 1, 2013 8:17 am
What is really scary is the fact that the SRC, Hite, Elie Broad and/or whoever else is calling the shots for the district does not know what is going to happen. They want the Public schools to whither on the vine and be replaced in a 4-5 year period. A sudden collapse is not in their interest. Which is why I say a collapse may be the only way to save Public education. So bring it on.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 1, 2013 8:38 am
How do we go about getting an audit of the district? Lets find out and do it!!!
Submitted by Marc Brasof (not verified) on May 1, 2013 9:15 am
I think an audit of the district would help but in the end, Philadelphia's school system has been undermined by a combination of the drive to privatize public school in an era in which jobs that support a blue collar city have disappeared. Without visionary leadership, without people that understand that human progress is impossible with local and regional integration of resources and purpose to improve the heart of schools and the communities they serve, then we will never see any real change in our school system. There will just be the few great schools and the rest will just barely make it. Social justice will never be served and we will continue to blame each other instead of working together. This budget represents a failure of both leadership locally and regionally and what happens when we do not challenge the assumptions underlying capitalistic economic ideology. Competition might work in business but it does not work in education. Public schools are a social good.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 1, 2013 10:09 am
Excellent comment, TYVM.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on May 1, 2013 2:31 pm
Marc--You and I agree that Public Schools are a social good but what do you do with the big money folks who don't give a rat's ass about the social good of poor, mostly people of color? This is NOT a new problem, of course, but it's a massive issue. Underfunding and/or disregarding poverty as significant problems only exacerbate the issues, especially when some politicians support this abuse as their pockets are being lined too. The charter movement, for the very most part, has zero interest in "improving education" but swindles money away from the Public Schools which serve the Public Good. In PA., the very first thing needed is to march on Harrisburg with vigor, malice and lots of angst. Corbett means our kids in traditional schools no good and he needs to go. He's just a puppet but a really unattractive and cold blooded one. You likely already know what Nutter and Obama are.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 1, 2013 10:12 am
Everyone calls for an audit, they are already out there! The City Controller's office audits the SDP books every year. Check out his website or ask for a copy.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 1, 2013 10:21 am
Darrell Clarke needs to set up a meeting with Corbett, we can't 'expect the city to do it all, and obviously the oversight wasn't sufficient or the central office wouln't have oversspsent by $26 million. That was unconscionable and for Hite to sit there and say we have no money after spending it that way ? We have no money for a reason.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on May 1, 2013 2:00 pm
Yes, when you do all the things to ruin something, then don't act surprised nor disappointed that that something is ruined. YOU did it and it was done on purpose. ALL OF THE LAST 10 YEARS WAS DONE BY DESIGN. Hite, Nutter and the rest are, me and anybody else gullible enough to fall for it. Big money is pulling the strings and the recent elections have energized their movement to destroy the unions and relegate workers to Walmart Level conditions. They won't dare bring their "Cancer for Sale" garbage to the more affluent suburbs.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 1, 2013 2:28 pm
I agree, now many of the more affluent distiricts are suffereing and you can't just say they have better tax base. Starve the system and take it over is what Corbett and his ilk are told to do. That's the problem, that's the bigger picture and we have to take it on. You take it on by first exposing it. I heard a few ppl yesterday at the budget hearing actually asking Hite and Ramos "how can we help you get what our children deserve"? I was incredulous, they meant well but you don't ask your nemisis for help.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on May 1, 2013 3:17 pm
That's correct---of course, they are NOT our friends and the sooner the people get that, the better off and more united we will be. They're disgusting puppets of the first order.
Submitted by Stan Shapiro (not verified) on May 1, 2013 6:53 pm
In this environment, it's little known but the Mayor actually has proposed CUTTING taxes, not raising them. He wants to cut the wage tax across the board, a Bush style tax cut that's worth 10 times as much to someone earning $320,000 in the City compared to someone earning the median wage of $32,000. If Council doesn't do this tax cut for the rich, it will have another $167 million to appropriate over five years. That's right, the City will have another $167 million for the School District and other purposes, just by maintaining the wage tax status quo.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 4, 2013 7:30 pm Part of the problem in Philly is that our mix of taxes is pretty inefficient and drives business away. It's not about the total amount of revenue (which the city is not trying to reduce), it's about the mix of taxes that bring in that revenue.
Submitted by Stan Shapiro (not verified) on May 4, 2013 10:59 pm
That's the lingo of the 1% elites that run this town. Underneath the neutral language, their proposals would shift the burden of taxes to those who can least afford them, the poor, those on fixed incomes, and those whose incomes come entirely from wages. And by proposing to cut business taxes drastically, they want us to risk that services will have to go down proportionally based on their prognostication that revenues will actually grow instead. That's pure Bushenomics; we see how well it's worked at the national level, and that's how well it will work in Philadelphia if put into place. It will assure only one thing, lower taxes for the big business and their rich CEO's.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 7, 2013 6:19 am
Sorry to interrupt your empty rhetoric, but income redistribution works at the national level. It doesn't work on the local level. Quite simply it is damn near impossible nowadays to move your income out of US taxation, and doing so puts your wealth at risk of IRS capture. But it is very easy and completely legal to move 5 miles to the suburbs. Visit the city on the weekends. Not many wealthy people or businesses NEED to be in the city of Philadelphia nowadays. The rich in Philadelphia already pay the highest taxes in the country. Likewise, we are the only city in the country that owns its gas company and gives away free natural gas to 150,000 poor people. Now back to your bs rhetoric...
Submitted by Annonym (not verified) on May 7, 2013 8:18 am
Philadelphia does have a culture of dependency. Far too many people expect everything for free. This certainly is felt in schools where some students do not expect to provide everything. The School District assumes teachers will fill the gaps. That said, there is a culture of dependency at the state and national level. Corporations expect tax breaks and buy outs. Those of us in the middle get the shaft. A recent study showed in the Northeast, a family of 4 needs about $73,000/gross income to just get by without any subsidies or "freebies" (free child care, free pre school, free lunches, free natural gas, subsidized rent, health care, food stamps), etc. So, someone who works and earn around $70,000/gross and gets no subsidies is living no better than someone earning $25- $30,000 because the lower the income, the more the subsidies. (There is also the Earned Income Tax Credit from the federal income tax which pays people to work.) Obviously, someone on disability with a couple of kids on disability also gets all the subsidies. It really hits hard with college. The person earning $70,000 will not get much federal help while someone earning $30,000 will get a lot of federal help on top of all the subsidies. In the U.S., unlike much of Europe, the subsidies are shared by a wider share of the population. If those in the middle didn't always feel the "pain" of subsidizing the poor AND rich, feelings might change.
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