Do we have the leaders to solve the Philly school funding mess?

    It’s beginning to dawn on more of us that Philadelphia’s school system could truly suffer a meltdown in the coming months — fail to make payroll, fail to open schools in September, maybe see a federal judge take control of the district after things grind to a halt.

    The school district’s financial situation is as dire as the one the city faced in 1991, when Philadelphia was just a hop and a skip from being unable cut paychecks.

    The solution back then involved city and state leaders coming together around a complex legislative deal that included a city sales tax. It also created a state authority that would borrow money to retire the city’s debt and then ride the city in future years to ensure it made credible budgets and financial plans.

    It wasn’t a bailout. All the costs were covered by city taxpayers, including staff salaries for the state oversight authority and some juicy contracts for bankers and lawyers connected to Harrisburg pols when bonds were issued. But the deal did require plenty of hard work, guts and compromise — finding funding sources, surmounting legal obstacles, and rounding up majorities for some tough votes in Philly and Harrisburg.

    Who’s gonna make it happen this time?

    As I’ve spoken with a variety of local players and experienced observers of the current crisis, more than one has said we’re confronting this mess with a leadership deficit.

    Back in the day, the city had Vince Fumo in the state Senate, Dwight Evans in the state House, and Billy Meehan running the city Republican Party, which was more of a force than it is now. The GOP had a couple of state senators in the city and five House seats, and Meehan had connections from Cottman Avenue to the capitol.

    In the 1991 fiscal crisis, Mayor Wilson Goode wasn’t much of a player any more, but John Street was. He was appropriations chairman of City Council, soon to be Council president, and a guy who understood political power and how to reach a deal.

    Things are different now. Fumo’s in jail, Evans is out of leadership, and Meehan is gone. The leaders of Philadelphia’s Harrisburg delegation are state Sen. Shirley Kitchen and state Rep. Cherelle Parker, both relatively new to their posts.

    Mayor Michael Nutter has offered a plan and speaks with conviction, but he hasn’t shown himself to be the kind of coalition-builder that gets Council singing his tune. In fact, many Philadelphia legislators are more interested in what City Council President Darrell Clarke has to say about this crisis than the mayor. Clarke is also new to his role.

    Many in the city delegation are uncomfortable with the school district’s demands of concessions from the teachers union. And, historically, Republican leaders haven’t looked with favor on the city’s agenda in Harrisburg if its own legislative delegation is divided.

    And then there’s the governor. He just doesn’t seem engaged. Watch the video of him fumbling an easy question about the Latino vote at a recent forum, and it doesn’t inspire confidence.

    Still, it can happen

    I threw some of this gloom at Mayor Nutter the other day and he said, yes, it’s tough. It’s always tough, but the stakes here for kids are high.

    And he’s right. Tough things don’t get done unless there’s enormous pressure to get them done, and it’s in no one’s interest — not lawmakers, the governor, Council members or union leaders — to see the school district collapse.

    But there’s a lot of tough work to do here, and sometimes it’s hard to see who’ll step up and make it happen.

    Here’s an idea I’ve heard floated: Gov. Corbett decides to accept the expanded Medicaid coverage in Obamacare and the federal funding that comes with it, and that frees up state money that can be pumped into charter school reimbursement. Charter funding is an easy sell to Republicans and gets a lot of money to Philadelphia. Maybe labor gets into the deal in some way, or, in one version I’ve heard, the legislature gives the city’s School Reform Commission the power to impose new contract terms on the teachers union.

    There are all sorts of problems here, including the fact that the state has balked at Medicaid expansion so long that accepting it now wouldn’t yield much money in the next fiscal year. But where there’s a will to lead and creative thinking, sometimes there’s a way.

    We’re weeks away from the end of the legislative seasons in City Council and the state Capitol where some decisions have to be made. We’ll soon see what kind of leaders we have in charge.

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