Ambitious Philadelphia schools plan will affect City Council tax debate

A day after Philadelphia schools officials outlined a dramatic reorganization and downsizing plan, City Council members are beginning to come to terms with how the proposal will affect the coming debate over the city’s property tax structure.

Under the plan, one-fourth of the schools would be closed to save money.

Mayor Michael Nutter already was fighting an uphill battle for approval of his proposed transformation of property tax assessments that will yield another $90 million for the schools.

Many on Council call that a tax hike. Nutter says it’s simply capturing revenue from increased property values, but he insists the schools need the money.

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“One, we need to fix the (tax assessment) system, and two, yes we do need to support public education, if you care about kids,” Nutter said in endorsing the school district’s plans.

But how does the Council debate change now that school officials have proposed such sweeping changes?

Will freshman Council members vote more funds for a system that’s closing schools in their districts?

Councilman Bill Green, now serving his second term, is excited about the proposed changes. He says they should have been considered earlier.

But he said the schools’ financial needs should be considered separately from Nutter’s planned changes in tax assessments.

“To me, they are completely separate and not at all related policy decisions,” Green said in a telephone interview.

Green and others on Council say Nutter’s property valuation plan should be put on hold for a year. If the schools need more money, they say, the district should ask for a tax increase.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown likes the district’s changes and backs Nutter’s plan. She said some on Council find it a tough vote, and it may be tougher as the district plans to shutter 40 schools.

“Yes, it’s politically controversial, but we asked to do this job,” Reynolds Brown said. “And sometimes we’re put in a place where we have to help our citizens understand that this is the right thing to do.”

Green said Council must confront the issue soon, and the school district’s credibility will be an issue.

“I’m not sure how Council gets comfortable with a proposal that’s this bold and transformative and dramatic and believes that they will actually follow through on it the following year,” Green said, “because they haven’t done so in past years.”

The school district’s plans assume it will get the $90 million Nutter proposes. If Council balks, the $218 million deficit will get that much worse.

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