Philly Mayor Parker calls for cooperation following school board dispute

Mayor Cherelle Parker warned of outside forces attempting to use the disagreement to drive a wedge between her office and City Council.

Cherelle Parker speaking into a microphone at a table

Philly Mayor Cherelle Parker addresses City Council on April 30, 2024. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

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Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker addressed the city council during the school district’s twice-yearly review, sending both a warning and a call for unity.

Parker said she barely slept since the council rejected Joyce Wilkerson, one of her school board picks. She quickly moved to keep Wilkerson on the board Monday but was concerned that outside forces would seize the incident to drive a wedge between her office and City Council.

“We can agree to disagree and have some fights, but don’t let that be the north star on how we move the city of Philadelphia,” she told council members during a 15-minute address Tuesday morning. “I can’t do it without you, and you can’t do it without me, we’re interdependent on each other.”

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Parker also spoke about how she has seen neighborhoods where infighting has caused issues and places where cooperation has allowed for investment that’s helped a neighborhood survive and thrive.

She said she understands how to be part of a group, pointing to her time as a legislator in Harrisburg and on City Council. However, her perspective has changed since taking office.

“I know what it’s like to be part of a team, I’m seeing things through a different lens that I never saw before,” she said.

Parker urged council members to row in the same direction with her to move the city forward.

School superintendent Tony Watlington also spoke at the hearing, saying the district’s finances are sound now, but more problems will appear during the outer years of the five-year plan.

If the city budget is passed as currently written, the district will receive an additional $129 million via a 1% shift of real estate taxes from the city to the schools, which would see the district receive 56% of property taxes, up from 55% last year. On the campaign trail, Parker called for that split to be 58% for the schools, but she testified Tuesday that the city can’t afford to do that at this point.

Wattlington stressed the need to invest strategically. “We’re not here with hands out saying just give us more money.” He added the district is “laser-focused” on things that “return investment to the school district.”

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Another issue discussed that would require significant funding is air conditioning for the city’s aging buildings that currently are not cooled in warmer weather.

Less than half of schools have proper air conditioning systems and several had to be shut down during hot days in recent years, something Wattlington testified he has never had to deal with at his previous positions in North Carolina. He also spoke of how he’s never had to deal with closing schools due to asbestos issues, which he has had to do in Philadelphia.

He said the main office has been trimmed to be one of the cleanest in the country. He said district leaders are working to find savings on everything from repairs to energy costs.

Despite the lean budget, there have been no cuts or layoffs in the district, Watlington said, adding that they have also been working with the unions to find economic assistance in any way possible.

Parkers said the city will shift some more property tax revenue to the schools to help them with their fiscal issues.

In the meantime, the district still has to hammer out a contract with two school unions, including the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

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