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Cigarette tax vote canceled; schools' opening in jeopardy

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jul 31, 2014 06:10 PM

Pennsylvania House Republicans have canceled a planned session on Monday to vote on a $2-a-pack cigarette tax in Philadelphia, jeopardizing the next school year for tens of thousands of students.

"Here we are again," said a frustrated Superintendent William Hite at a hastily called news conference Thursday afternoon.

Schools are now only weeks away from their scheduled opening day, but without assurances that the District will have enough funds to operate a functional system, much less one that offers an acceptable education.

The same thing happened last year, and the city's schools still don't have a guarantee of reliable, recurring revenue sufficient to their needs.

Hite, Mayor Nutter, and City Council President Darrell Clarke all called the cancellation of the vote "devastating." House Republicans said they would come back on Sept. 15 instead, but Hite says he needs assurances of the money by Aug. 15 in order to forestall all kinds of operational decisions, including up to 1,300 layoffs.

"We support Dr. Hite's belief that ensuring schools are safe and adequately staffed is more important than opening schools as planned on Sept. 8," Nutter and Clarke said in a joint statement.

In making the decision, House Republicans urged Gov. Corbett to advance money to the District, but Hite said that might be no help.

"I don't know what that advance means," he said. If it is simply advancing money earlier, rather than an infusion of new funds, "that doesn't help us. ... We still need $81 million. Otherwise, we're spending money we don't have." 

Nutter and Clarke also said that they appreciated "the House’s well-intentioned idea," but cautioned that "it does nothing to address the substantial budget gap" that the cigarette tax would help close. It is expected to raise about $45 million in 2014-15 and around $80 million once fully operational for a full fiscal year.

Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai and Speaker Sam Smith, said: “We believe that advancing the money to ensure that Philly is able to open the schools will alleviate the problem until legislation is passed.”

Nutter, however, said the House must come back and "do their job."

City Council passed the cigarette tax more than a year ago and has waited this long for the required state authorization. The legislature declined for months to take a vote -- then loaded up the bill approving the tax with unrelated but controversial riders that split the House and Senate.

The two houses were unable to resolve their differences before leaving Harrisburg for their summer recess.

"I'm annoyed, disappointed, frustrated," Hite said. "We're trying to educate children. I'm annoyed that, once again, this is in somebody else's hands, someone else is making the determination for what we do here in Philadelphia to serve our children. It's frustrating as you're trying to educate the young people of this city that, once again, for whatever reason, it's taken for granted that we can make do without the resources we need."

Education advocates still planned to go to Harrisburg on Monday, said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Cooper, who was a policy adviser to former Gov. Ed Rendell, said that they would protest outside Turzai's office.  

"It's outrageous that the Philadelphia School District is being held hostage by an internecine fight within the Republican Party," Cooper said.

Some legislators balked at interrupting their vacations to act on something that affected only Philadelphia and not schools in their own districts, according to the Inquirer.

One of the provisions added to the cigarette tax bill by the Senate imposes a hotel tax in York County. The House took out that provision. State Rep. Stan Saylor of York, the House majority whip, said that he can't vote for the bill unless that is put back in. York County has eight representatives, and if they all refused to attend the session, it would imperil the bill's chance of passing. 

“I’m not opposed to supporting Philadelphia cigarette tax for their schools," he said. "My problem has been with taking out the other economic development stuff that pertains to my county.”

Turzai and Smith also issued a statement saying that "we are working with the Senate and governor to ensure Philadelphia has the resources it needs to keep the schools open."

Cooper said that House Appropriations Committee Chair William Adolph of Delaware County has been working hard to get the body back for a vote on the cigarette tax, so far to no avail.

"It’s unfathomable to me that Turzai would care that much about a hotel tax in York County to put at risk the opening of the Philadelphia School District in September," she said.

"Personal agendas are trumping everything. That they don't care enough about what's happening here in Philadelphia and that this fight can trump the possibility that children go to school is completely outrageous."

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, said that the Senate stood ready to come back and approve the House bill.

"This lack of action is catastrophic," Hughes said.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education said the group would explore legal options and called the House's inaction "a planned sabotage of our children, our schools and our city" and a "purposeful act of cruelty and neglect."

Hite tried to be optimistic, saying that there are still two weeks left before he has to pull the trigger on major decisions like layoffs.

He has said that without closing the $81 million gap, which will just get the District back to what he called this year's "wholly insufficient" levels, class sizes in high schools could exceed 40 students and there may be even fewer nurses, counselors, and support staff.

"We're not asking for any other place in the state to tax themselves in order to provide more resources for the children of this city. This is Philadelphia asking for the ability to begin a tax that it already approved," he said.

"I implore these individuals to come back to approve that legislation."


Video by Dorian Geiger.

Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks contributed reporting.

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Comments (40)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 7:54 pm

We should have impeached Corbett years ago!!!



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 8:50 pm

Yes, we should have done that and also Hite administration, SRC , EVERBODY MUST LEAVE THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA. Last year you should not have opened schools with bare bone staff. How many assaults and fights in neighborhood schools? And now, this year, HITE WILL OPEN SCHOOLS WITH NO ADEQUATE STAFFING FOR OUR NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS. Wait and watch! All poitical game.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 5:12 pm

My God, WHY did I stay in this hellhole of a school district when I had the opportunity to run four years ago? Because of misplaced loyalty to my students who were desperate for a science teacher who cared. Well, this decision will cost me plenty now - most likely, it will cost me my career in education. The bitterness and hatred I feel toward this state and this school district is too overwhelming for words. Year after year I've been subjected to this nonsense - trying to do my best with no resources at all to draw upon. With six years in the field, I'm young enough to escape into private industry. Good luck to you older teachers who have too many years in to quit. The school district really needs you because 20-somethings like me would rather jump off a cliff than teach in Philly (it's really the same thing) and there aren't verymany of us going into teaching anyway. As for the SDP: stick a fork in it; it's finished.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 7:31 pm

It's all about making the teachers look like the ultimate enemy. If you don't give in to our demands, we'll fix it so that the schools won't open. If the schools don't open, the teachers are the ones to blame and the hopes are that they'll be ostracized by the public. Period.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 8:11 pm

That's funny. I didn't hear him say a word about the union contributing a thing to help with this.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 8:20 pm

With the Cigarette Tax on the back burner, what happens now? District says that if the tax isn't approved by August 15th then schools could face having classrooms increasing to 40 students per class. Then they say decreases in nurses in schools could also be a factor come September. When will enough cuts be enough cuts? I really hope the district stops soon before there are no schools left to cut. 

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 31, 2014 8:28 pm

Demonstrate at Corbett's office tomorrow:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 1:09 am

Corbett's going make sure he starves the district the best he can. Even if the kids run wild in the streets with nowhere to go and there's a rash of violence dominating the city, Corbett could careless because Big Daddy Oil told him not to care. Besides the charters that do exist will not take all the run off from the closed public schools and if they did, they would throw most of them out into the street. We all know this is an undermining of democracy and the public school system along with institutionalized racism to boot.  Good ol' Rendell chose not to do anything about this while he was gov and it only goes to show that plenty of Dems want a piece of the action that is for profit education.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 8:56 pm

Good the first ones to be laid off because schools won't open should be all those $100,000 salaries for school type executives. Right?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 6:21 am

YES, YES, KIHN. With more than 250, 000 must be laid off first. He is the one who advises Hite to open schools with bare bone budget and laysoff everyone who is with these neighborhood schools. 15 days ago,  all 342 layoffs were directly connected to the schools. All these charters. magnet schools and principals are thriving in Philadelphia because they throw off the poor students into theses neighborhood schools. These neighborhood need the most resource and Hite's administration is not listening because he does not care. How can you treat SLA and Bartram with the same cirteria? Will SLA admit all the Bartram or overbrook or Fels or Frankford students?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 7:08 am

Let's layoff Corbett and all the folks who won't meet.  Let's cut their pension.  Let's get them to give back.  Hmmmmm

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 8:33 am

An incredibly astute observation. The charters and magnets have thus far escaped all responsibility for taking in emotionally disturbed kids with behavioral problems - multiply handicapped kids - autistic kids - the lowest performing ELL's - while raking in big bucks to do precisely this. What happens to these kids once the neighborhood schools go under? I mean, outside of their running wild in the streets and creating havoc for local businesses? ........Gonna be a loooong September.

Submitted by huh? (not verified) on August 1, 2014 5:54 pm

Go to the district's website and count the number of new departments and staff.  Office of New Model Schools, Office of Improvement and Innovation, Office of Teacher Effectiveness, etc. 

Not to mention the raises.  Ryan Stewart alone received a 95% raise, yes 95%, when he was promoted to the Office of Improvement and Innovation.

Submitted by Tax payer (not verified) on July 31, 2014 9:10 pm

It's part of a strategic plan...schools won't open until early October creating mass hysteria in parents who will rush to charters, cyber charters, which will drain neighborhood schools of it's current student population. As a result, operating and federal budgets will be reduced in neighborhood schools to adjust for falling enrollment. This tactic is needed to force parents into enroll students in cyber charters (with drop in centers). 

At the end of the road (only a few years away) there will be a portfolio of schools that include charters, cyber charters, education for profit management corps, and the magnet schools who hand pick high achieving students. 

By the way, the “powers that be” are counting on PFT to not give into salary reductions. This too is part of the master plan. Let’s call it Redesign Initiative 2.1. And, when schools don’t open on time the only folks who will continue to receive their regular pay will be Hite, Kihn, et. al. 

Submitted by Wry (not verified) on July 31, 2014 10:10 pm
You are correct. do we calm the masses? How do we inform them of the devious plan? How do we teach them that charter schools are not better? Jerry Jordan have any ideas? Helen Gym? Someone who cares?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 10:27 pm

I thought charters are public schools. How would they be open if the public schools are closed?

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on July 31, 2014 10:11 pm

Yes they are Public and yes they will open.

They are Public schools not bound by the rules of other Public schools.

That way they can do things to kill off the public schools.Part of their function.

Submitted by Neighborhood HS teacher (not verified) on August 1, 2014 4:20 am

Charters are guaranteed funding.  They get their money first - then public schools get what is left.  The PA Legislature also changed how public schools receive special education funding but charter schools get another pass.  Remember, $350 million a year in funding for special education to charter schools does NOT go for special education students.  It is $100 million alone in Philadelphia.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 12:45 am

Sounds about right to me. They have every angle covered. Wonder if they really are going to snuff us all out within the next two years?

Submitted by Tax payer (not verified) on August 1, 2014 11:26 am

Remember this is a movement that has been gaining momentum over a 15 year timeframe. It started with the notion of vouchers that did not materialize. 

Hite may be Philadelphia's last superintendent--his role is to bring the SDP to a close and initiate the portfolio of schools in Philadelphia. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 9:03 pm

ENOUGH! Just show some dang guts, Hite, and announce NOW that no money mean no school in Sptember! 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 12:58 am

You see him above and he looks like he's about to cry and rue the day he signed up for the job. Hornbeck started it and look what they did. He may be the one to finish it. PFT and it's memebership sat idle for way to long and now it maybe to late. Maybe I can move to one of those poor paying mid western right to work states and make a nice 35,000 starting salary with 15 years of experience and two masters in education. Probably wouldn't hire me anyway if they knew my credentials.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 31, 2014 11:53 pm

Stop relying on CIGARETTES to fund a whole city's education!!! Think of a new plan.Think outside that little cancer stick box! 

Can't PPA throw some money our way? Isn't there anyone with a half a brain in 440? 

Submitted by MBA to M'Ed mom (not verified) on August 3, 2014 10:40 am

I would love to know where the money the PPA collects goes to, their revenue has to be quite signifcant.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 8:27 am
This is all about putting pressure on PFT to make ridiculous concessions. PERIOD.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 9:24 am

What is a superintendent of community relations? Why are irrelevant positions like this existing during financial upheaval? Are you kidding me? I came here from another city to teach "in the hood" and the disfunction in this district is amazing. Luckliy, I found another teaching position outside of Philly so I can get out before its too late. This district  is done. Good luck! I'm out.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 11:35 am

Take me with you - PLEASE!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2014 11:02 am

Thats what I am talking about. Hite keeps laying off people as he desires. All these 342 people who got laid now must go to the court to get their jobs back. Hite keeps hiring new people giving more than $100,000s of dollars and fires who are directly working with our children. All noon time aides and bilingual assistants and aps. it is sad.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 11:29 am

Hite AND the PFT need to make a joint public statement that school will not open in September untill the State meets its Constitutional and Moral responsibility to fund them.  The schools will be unsafe and little learning will take place. I hope the guts are there to actally do this  The time for talking is over, the State has, repeatidly, shown it doesn't give a "D***" about what we say.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2014 11:59 am

yes, they should.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 11:56 am

Oh no! We can't tax cigarettes to fund our schools! Whatever shall we do?

I know! Let's find something else to tax.  Hey, how about marijuana? I hear that's producing a lot of revenue in other areas of the country.

I even have a few slogans they can use to support the venture:

"Don't get your morals out of joint: Have a smoke and support your schools!"


"Support your schools: Contribute to the pot!"


"Weed out your education problems: Support your schools!"


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 1:36 pm

Oh leave the SDP administration alone. The plantation workers are just doing Massa's bidding. As long as they get their 40 acres and a mule, they'd sell out anyone. Unfortunately in this case, it is the children of Philadelphia.

Submitted by Maynard (not verified) on August 1, 2014 1:44 pm

No one should ride in a car that is deemed unsafe.  No one should go onto a construction site that is deemed unsafe.  No one should have to live in a home that is unsafe.  Nor should anyone bring children into schools that, as Superintendent admits,  are unsafe.  Shouldn't teachers then, refuse to start the school year in "unsafe" schools?  We've already seen the disasters that occurred last year with children dying without school nurses and fights breaking out with absent adults.  If teachers refuse to teach in schools unsafe for the children they care for, would the Superintendent agree with them?  Would he say, "Yes, you've done the right thing."  Or, would he and the courts call it a strike and decertify the teachers?  Which side would he and the courts be on?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 4:24 pm
To say these schools will now be "unsafe" implies that they were at some point"safe." Just how long ago was that?
Submitted by Darryl Johns (not verified) on August 1, 2014 4:38 pm

If we have to rely upon the Legislature at the 11th hour then we're lost. We've been here before and it's time the City Fathers extricated us from this loop. We need a reliable funding source for our schools and the pathway to that source requires that we rely more upon the judiciary.

A flood of lawsuits from the parents of special needs children naming the district for gross violations of IEPs would be a good start. There are probably some great legal arguments ready to be made against the Commonwealth for their lack of a funding mechanism, those need to be champoined in Federal Court.

For those idealist lawyers out there who see the absolute injustice in the scenarios that continue to play out in Philadelphia Schools...we need your talents ASAP.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 1, 2014 4:29 pm

There's $500 million net that could come to the city from selling PGW. Yet crickets chirping from all the education advocates. They want money, but only if it comes from someone else's pocket. 

They are quiet when city council chooses to prioritize its corrupt and unnecessary patronage fiefdom over funding schools. They never take any of the complete crooks like Tasco or Clarke to task when they were laying claim to the 1% sales tax to fund their personal kickback machines.  

And btw, the cigarette tax like PGW is a one time bump. Before a year, the money will be down to 1/4 of what they are projecting. Saving $3.35 a carton is worth the drive to VA- a sedan trunk will carry you around $2500 in tax savings. With a panel van you can do $100k. 

Oh well, just a word of truth that will fall on deaf ears of the ideological and stupid.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 2, 2014 10:23 pm

Solidarity with other public sector workers, no matter how unnecessary or unproductive those workers are, is the most important thing to the education advocates. And the Philadelphia delegation. 

Same thing with state store workers.  The entire Philly delegation, in soviet politburo fashion, chooses to do the bidding of that skanky special interest rather than cut a deal to increase its own schools' funding. 


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 2, 2014 11:40 pm

I wouldn't want to be you. So nasty! So cynical! How do you get up in the morning?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2014 1:38 pm

Yes, dealing with reality is difficult.  Likewise, understanding the truth behind the Democrat machine here. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2014 8:22 pm
You cannot be two people at once, so the statement is illogical. All humans wake up the same way, although I really need a cup of coffee.

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