May 24 — 12:00 am, 2007

Activists campaign for Goode’s school proposal

goode 0 Photo: Harvey Finkle

Advocates are heavily lobbying City Council for a bill to give the School District a larger share of local property taxes, which would provide $18.4 million more revenue to the schools next fiscal year and perhaps help convince legislators in Harrisburg that the city is investing its fair share.

Right now, the School District receives 58 percent of the city’s property taxes, with the rest going to city government. The legislation introduced by Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. would increase that to 60 percent. The difference would help close the District’s $182 million funding gap.

Three parent groups – Parents United for Public Education, the District’s citywide Home and School Council, and Parents United for Better Schools – as well as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the Philadelphia Education Fund, and Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth are urging voters to contact Council members in support of the bill, known as the “Public Education Reinvestment Act.”

At a May 11 rally outside City Hall sponsored by the three parent organizations, Helen Gym, a Powel School parent and organizer for Parents United for Public Education, pointed to the threat of a mayoral veto of the Goode bill and told participants it would take a concerted effort to persuade Council “to place our kids first” in the city budget.

Other recent parent actions in support of the bill included a lobbying day in Council offices, letter-writing, a petition campaign, and publicizing which Council members and candidates have endorsed the Goode bill.

Long-standing criticism

Harrisburg legislators, in rebuffing perennial Philadelphia pleas for more education aid, have long charged that the city has not increased its own contribution. Instead of raising the District’s share of taxes, the way that City Council has boosted aid for the past several years is by giving the District an additional annual appropriation of $35 million.

“We think that’s an important step to leverage with the state,” Sheila Simmons, education coordinator for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, said of the Goode bill.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that he began meeting with individual Council members in early May. He is urging them to support Goode’s bill and target the money to instruction or counseling programs. “We have to do everything we can to make sure the kids can read by the third grade,” he said.

The additional money being sought amounts to less than one half of one percent of the city’s nearly $4 billion budget. Yet the change is facing resistance from city officials wary of plunging the city deeper into a financial crisis of its own.

“It’s sad that our city leaders are making people jump through hoops,” said Brian Armstead, director of civic engagement for the Philadelphia Education Fund.

Justin DiBerardinis, a field organizer for Good Schools Pennsylvania, said it would take a sustained coalition to increase city funding this year and beyond. “Philadelphia is spending thousands less [per student] than any other city in the Northeast,” he noted.

The School District expects just over $800 million in total revenues from the city in the coming school year.

How much the city’s support for education lags compared to other districts depends on how the financial data is sliced.

Statistics compiled by the Education Law Center, using state reports for 2004, show that the city was contributing $3,388 toward each student’s education. That was far below the statewide average of $5,937.

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), looking at state data on “tax effort,” found the city’s overall rate of taxation for schools lagging behind the state average, but only by 4 percent. Using that measure, the city should contribute an additional $29.5 million to the School District, in order to meet the state average, according to PILCOP.

But the city’s financial oversight board, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, warns that any more money for schools is a “major risk” that could financially break the city in the next five years. In addition to supporting Goode’s bill, the District wants the city to pick up $9.2 million of its costs, including the payroll cost for a staff of city tax assessors and auditors now charged to the schools and the costs for city use of District facilities for afterschool activities.

Jacqueline Barnett, the city’s education secretary, said the mayor was reluctant to support either measure because it could lock the city into permanent yearly commitments.

City Council’s hearing on the District budget and Goode’s bill was delayed from late April until May 23, to give Governor Rendell’s budget director time to analyze it in hopes of cutting more expenses. Barnett said Mayor Street wanted to see the state’s assessment of the long-range costs for specific reforms, such as smaller classes and schools, and using private managers for some schools. Street also wanted to learn more about the added costs of the state-mandated charter schools funded by the District, she said.

Lining up commitments

Advocates hope to make Street’s reluctance irrelevant by gaining commitments from at least 12 Council members, enough to override a mayoral veto. They had enlisted support from 10 members by the time of the May 11 rally, attended by about 60 people in the coalition.

“The city needs to pay its bills [to the District],” said Greg Wade, president of the Home and School Council, before the rally, noting the costs of city after-school programs.

Veronica Joyner, founder of Parents United for Better Schools and the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, said District money is needed for art and music classes, which she said were vital to getting children interested in math and science.

Harry J. Levant, a parent leader in the Shawmont Elementary School Home and School Association, said the money could help his school expand pre-K classes, regain the five teaching assistants it will lose next year and perhaps regain teachers it lost last year.

Ted Kirsch, president of the teachers’ union, told the crowd at the rally that Goode’s bill was needed to offset city revenues lost by the schools because of tax abatements given to developers to build in the city.

“It’s only the beginning of what we need,” he said. He noted that cuts by the District already had eliminated teachers and support staff throughout the city. “It’s the kids who are getting hurt the most,” Kirsch said, “If we don’t do something now, then the future of this city isn’t very bright.”

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