Gerry Lenfest: School budget cuts would hurt Philly’s economy

    Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission will vote Thursday on whether to adopt a budget that would deprive the district of librarians, sports, music and assistant principals.

    One day before the vote, charity giants Carole Haas Gravagno and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest decided to throw their weight behind the city’s struggling schools.

    Haas Gravagno, chairwoman of the Stoneleigh Foundation, urged city and state leaders to figure out a way to avoid the cuts. She said they would hurt children, taxpayers, businesses and the suburbs alike.

    “We’re more interested in building juvenile justice centers or prisons. That’s where [children will] go if we aren’t taking care of them,” she said. “This will spill over into all the counties if we don’t do something.”

    Lenfest, another noted philanthropist, said in a statement that “gutting the schools” would hurt Philadelphia’s economy.

    The school district has been pleading for more money from the city and state, as well as labor givebacks, in order to stave off budget cuts. It is facing a $304 million budget deficit next year.

    So far, the potential cuts have prompted Mayor Michael Nutter to introduce a plan to raise $95 million for the schools, mainly through taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has also proposed boosting funds by hiking the use-and-occupancy tax, a levy on commercial property owners.

    But those plans are just that — plans — and it seems unlikely that the school district will get everything it’s asking for from the state and teachers union.

    So would Haas Gravagno consider writing a check to the district?

    She said donating money to entities such as the school district is not part of the Stoneleigh Foundation’s mission. However, she would be happy to pay more taxes to help the schools, she said. 

    “What I don’t understand is why we aren’t willing to pay a little bit more to provide education for our kids,” she said. 

    According to Lenfest, Philadelphia’s outlook depends on swift help to the district.

    “The public and political leaders with the purse strings have to know what this could do to the future of Philadelphia,” he said. “Our City Council lags behind other councils nationally, in allotting money to the school district.”

    The Lenfest Foundation, which he founded, has recently decided to focus its spending on programs aiding disadvantaged young people, especially those in Philadelphia.

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