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The challenge for Superintendent Hite

By Ron Whitehorne on Jul 18, 2014 09:53 AM

Last month, Superintendent William Hite said he would consider opening the schools fully staffed and run them until the money runs out rather than institute a new round of layoffs. The School Reform Commission, in a rare display of independence and political courage, signaled it would support him. 

After the budget debacle in Harrisburg, in which the governor and his supporters failed to raise substantial new revenue, it’s time for Hite, the SRC, and public education advocates to take that step.

The revenue picture

Right now, the District’s only prospect for more money is from the proposed $2-per-pack city cigarette tax, a measure that represents no new revenue from the state and only enables Philadelphia to further tax its own citizens. This tax is regressive, will hurt small retailers in the city and probably won’t deliver the revenue projected. But even this tax is far from a done deal, as Corbett and his allies had been using the stalled legislation as leverage to get the Philadelphia delegation to support their version of pension reform.

Moreover, even if the cigarette tax was passed and the revenue projections held up, it would not be enough money to maintain the status quo, let alone restore the massive cuts that were made last year.

Dr. Hite is on record as saying the District needs $96 million to maintain things as they are and $320 million to start developing what he has called a “system of excellent schools.” We are still, as he acknowledges, far short of what affluent Districts provide.

If this is the benchmark, Hite should spend what funds are in hand to reach it, challenging the state and the city to provide the resources to sustain it until the end of the school year.

The legislature reconvenes on Aug. 4. At that time, we should demand they pass a robust education revenue package, including a 5 percent extraction tax on Marcellus Shale, closing corporate tax loopholes, and freezing the phase-out of business taxes. 

Given Corbett’s intransigence, passage of such a package would be difficult. However, a substantial number of Republicans have indicated support for a shale tax, and widespread dissatisfaction across Pennsylvania with the level of state support for schools in an election year works to our favor.

In January of next year, there is a strong likelihood a new governor will be in Harrisburg, one who is expected to favor new revenue for education. A campaign around this issue now will strengthen Tom Wolf’s election prospects and provide a mandate for him to take action when in office.

Next year, Philadelphia will hold elections for mayor and City Council. School funding will be a major issue. Instead of regressive sin taxes and selling off public assets, new revenue from scaling back tax abatements for the rich, getting mega-nonprofits to contribute their fair share, and more aggressive targeting of big tax delinquents need to be discussed.

To create the broadest unity around this challenge, Dr. Hite and the SRC need to drop their demand that school funding come from labor concessions. This is an unfair and destructive policy that is costing Philadelphia the opportunity to build a stable, experienced and competitive corps of teachers and professionals. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has signaled its willingness to negotiate a contract that recognizes the District’s grim fiscal realities, but it has not and should not agree to the wage give-backs and attacks on working conditions.

Historical precedent

In 1998, then-Superintendent David Hornbeck, faced with inadequate revenue from the state, threatened to close schools early rather than cut school budgets. 

In Hornbeck’s case, a backlash from Harrisburg cost him his job and led to the state takeover of Philadelphia’s schools.

Hornbeck’s unapologetic advocacy for Philadelphia’s schoolchildren and his willingness to challenge the racial and class double standard when it came to school funding raised the hackles of Republicans -- and some Democrats as well -- in Harrisburg.

Today, our schools are in more desperate condition than they were at that time. The need for bold action is clear. And with the political winds shifting, the chances that it might succeed are better.


Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a coordinator for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (17)

Submitted by Stan Shapiro (not verified) on July 18, 2014 11:28 am

An increase in the U & O tax, to offset the windfall downtown landlords got from AVI, and an increase in the Gross Receipts Tax, which largely is paid by out of town businesses, should also be on the table.  Big business is behind the cuts to state education funding.  We should make them bear the load for their own selfishness by making them pay for restoration in Philly.  Whatever damage that may do to the way over-revered concept of maintaining a favorable "business climate" will be more than offset by the benefits accruing from a first-class education system.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2014 12:46 pm

Hite and SRC already showed that they were not serious when they laid off hundreds more just last week!  You cannot trust a word that these people say, it's all empty threats, except when it comes to laying people off who deal with the students on a daily basis, while hiring more 6 figure suits to work at 440

Submitted by anon (not verified) on July 19, 2014 7:56 pm

hite and his henchmen have proven time after time that they have zero credibility and can not be negotiated with as honest partners.  i cannot understand why the media doesn't acknowledge this and instead continues to give him a free pass.  

Submitted by Tired Old Schoolmarm (not verified) on July 20, 2014 1:51 pm

The damage has already been done. There is no going back, and I greatly fear that there is no way on earth to save our city's public schools. The schools will open on time this year - with far fewer personnel - and it will be a ghastly experience for site administrators, teachers and students. Yet they will bludgeon themselves through another tortuous term - though the attrition rate will be considerable - and the following school year will be even worse. Then the infrastructure will collapse. No one is going into teaching anymore and those who are are definitely not going into Philadelphia. In my 26 years of teaching here, I have never seen such a huge number of educators quitting the profession all at one time. Worse still, they are actively discouraging young folk from making the same mistake they made by refusing to even consider a teaching career. This more than anything has destroyed the "pipeline" of fresh young education grads. Without them, we have no future and I am frankly heartsick to be in a dying profession  Once a highly respected career, teaching today ranks on par with rat catching and body snatching as a likely profession for college grads. . The shortage is even worse in Charter schools and - most discouraging of all - among men, who have fled our profession in record numbers after decades of effort to recruit them. May Corbett and Broad and all their cronies burn in hell for what they have done to this city. There is no forgiveness for a sin like this.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2014 12:58 pm

Don't make the same mistake this year that was made last year.  If the fundin isn't there, all of it, DO NOT OPEN AT  ALL!  Last year was a mess and with the lay offs already announced last week, never mind possibly more, this year is shaping up to be even worse.  The State wanted,and still wants, control of the district, make them live up to the obligations that they have

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2014 1:15 pm

So run schools long enough to see Corbett bite the dust in his reelection bid and have Wolf refund the schools?

Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on July 19, 2014 8:00 pm

I see in the news that Corbett is planning to blame the education funding crisis on pensions. The report left out the crucial information that the commonwealth took a decade long holiday from making payments to its pension funds, so cf course there is a deficit. The impression is that taxpayers are being soaked so that retirees can live like kings and queens. It is outrageous that such a gross exaggeration is being passed off as truth.

There would be enough to cover more than half the cost of local education if revenue loopholes were closed and a proper levy placed on gas extraction.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2014 9:31 am

You are correct, but remember it was Rendell who stopped making the payments on pensions.  It was also Rendell who used stimulus money to artificially fund basic education.  In essence, Rendell passed the buck financially and left other holding the bag while he walked away smelling like a rose.  Corbett is not without blame in this, but it is not all on him.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2014 10:14 am

Yes. And the unions have always been happy to put off pension payments, to free up more money for raises and generally avoid disclosing the real costs of the benefits they negotiated.


pa was fully funded until the retroactive multi billion dollar windfall in 2001 and 2002. Gloria benefits from this. She also pays no state income taxes on it. Despite being a major tax evader and paying nothing, she never has a shortage of ideas for how others have to pay more. Just don't ask her for $1.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2014 12:26 pm

Really? How come there have been no raises for Philly teachers in well over three or more years?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2014 3:38 pm

Fair question.  And yet, for the last three years, we have paid progressively more in taxes each year to fund schools. Per pupil funding in Philadelphia has DOUBLED since 2001 while inflation is up 32%. How does that happen? 

Very simple- after a decade of the SRC giving super-inflationary raises, the bill is finally coming due for the multi-billion dollar pension giveaway of 2001-2.  

The funding problem in Philadelphia and throughout the rest of the state begins and ends with pensions. 

There is no amount of tax increase that will solve the funding problem without reforming pensions. The benefits given in 2001-2002 were not earned and were not sustainable. They were bought from corrupt politicians who were happy to defraud taxpayers 10 or 15 years in the future to buy votes today (and give themselves an unearned 50% pension bump too).

Without reform, schools will be underfunded so current and nearterm retirees can continue to receive a (tax free) windfall. It is that simple. 


Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 20, 2014 6:57 pm

There is a pension problem but the school funding problem is by no means reducible to pensions.   Moreover, Corbett's pension plan will not address the problem at all.

 The benefits given in 2001-02 were dramaticallly scaled back in 2010.   A short account of the history of the pension problem is here:

And here's a proposed solution to the problem that would not gouge future retirees but would relieve the pressure on local Districts to continue raising propety taxes:

We do need a pension fix but to hold school funding hostage, as Corbett is now doing, is not the way to go.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2014 7:03 pm

and we paied money into schools like Pepper for heating and air, Shaw for a library and yet the SDP knew it was closing both but the  money got spent anyway.....


Linda K.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2014 7:35 pm

sorry paid

Linda K

Submitted by Annony (not verified) on July 20, 2014 7:56 pm

Shaw was given to Mastery for a song....

Submitted by Jessie (not verified) on July 20, 2014 6:38 pm

Thanks for the interesting info in:

Submitted by Education Grad ... on July 22, 2014 1:06 am

There are too many Philadelphians who accept sin taxes and local taxes as a solution to the funding problems for The School District of Philadelphia. THE COMMONWEALTH HAS A CONSTITUTIONAL OBLIGATION TO PROVIDE FOR A "THOROUGH AND EFFICIENT SYSTEM OF PUBLIC EDUCATION." This money needs to come from the state budget via a fair funding formula. It should not be put together piece-meal or at the last minute in order to "scrape by." 

Dr. Hite has warned the legislature and the governor that he and the SRC may have to close schools early due to lack of funding. This should be enough warning in order to spur the governor and the legislature to act. The fact that the governor and legislature have not done anything of substance to remedy the issue puts them in violation of the Consistitution of the Commonwealth.

Say that the District does have to shut schools down early, and there are not 180 instructional days. Let's say that the Pennsylvania Department of Education provides some punishment to the District for not having enough instructional days. The District can appeal the decision on the grounds that it did not receive sufficient funding from the Commonwealth. The District could cite PDE's practice of directly paying charter schools who have exceeded mutually agreed-upon enrollment caps. The District would have a VERY strong case against the Commonwealth, e.g. Governor Corbett is not taxing gas drillers at the expense of underfunding a constitutionally-mandated service.

Open schools with staffing levels AT LEAST at what they were in 2012-2013. Then, run the schools until there is no money left. This puts the ball in the court of the governor and the legislature to do something. 

It's clear that Dr. Hite sees more risk in operating schools at bare-bones levels than operating adequately-staffed schools for fewer than 180 school days. He has the threat of another emergency like what occurred at Bartram High School. There is the prospect of children dying from inadequate nursing services. There is the real possibility of children or staffers sustaining serious injuries because there are insufficient staff persons in order to ensure safety in school buildings. Numerous principals have already spoken to Dr. Hite and the SRC to tell them that the conditions we faced in 2013-2014 are not sustainable. 

The ball is in the court of the legislature and the governor.


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