Gov. Wolf visits Philly to talk education funding, tout record

Governor Tom Wolf obvservs students during a visit to Baldi Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia Thursday. (Brad Larrison for NewsWorks)

Governor Tom Wolf obvservs students during a visit to Baldi Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia Thursday. (Brad Larrison for NewsWorks)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf visited Baldi Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia Thursday to tout increases in education funding and push for more.

Gladys Ramos, 13, an ace reporter for The Baldi Times, was ready for him.

The eighth grader asked if Wolf had a plan in place so her teachers didn’t have to spend their own money on school supplies.

The Governor’s response: “I’m trying.”

The most recent state budget contained about $50 million in added money for the School District of Philadelphia, money that allowed the district to hire more nurses and counselors and purchase new textbooks.

Superintendent William Hite, who joined Wolf Thursday, has called the start of the 2016-17 school the best since he took charge four years ago. Even he had to answer tough questions from the crowd at Baldi.

While visiting an English class Hite was asked by teacher Stephanie Stock if he would strike a new deal with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has been without a contract for more than three years. Hite told Stock — who was purposefully decked out in red, the primary color of the PFT — that he would.

“I looked at him and said ‘don’t make a promise you can’t keep!’ He better keep it,” Stock said with a half-smile.

The tone of the visit matched the mood in Philadelphia education these days: optimistic with a undercurrent of impatience.

Some of the optimism stems from relatively happy news out of Harrisburg. Not only did the most recent budget come with extra money for Philadelphia schools, it also locked into place a long-term funding source.

The district receives about $58 million annually from a city cigarette tax. The tax was supposed to sunset, but a clause in the most recent state budget makes it permanent. Budget language also ensures that the Philadelphia schools will always get at least $58 million. If the tax doesn’t actually generate that much money in future years, the state legislature has pledged to make up the difference.

The financial boost freed the district to reverse a years-long trend of austerity.

“We have now new instructional materials in math and English. We have new technologies,” said Hite. “We’re thrilled to be here at Baldi Middle School highlighting what these new investments mean to our young people.”

Thursday’s visit revolved around a set of glossy new English textbooks that were, not surprisingly, being put to very good use as Wolf walked the building. Wolf pointed to the books as evidence of his achievements and to set the stage for the next round of funding fights.

“The new textbooks we saw here — the first time in eight years we’ve brought new textbooks for the Philadelphia school district — that shouldn’t happen,” Wolf said. “There’s no school district where that should be the case.”

“We need to make sure we have a system of education that is fairly and adequately funding education so that every year there are new textbooks,” Wolf said.

When asked, Wolf reiterated his opposition to a fair funding lawsuit argued last week in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in the suit say the courts should intervene because the legislature has established a funding system that disadvantages districts with low property values.

Wolf supports the premise — that Pennsylvania’s funding system is unfair — but not the remedy. He believes school funding should be left to the legislative and executive branches.

“I fully support what the suit is about. I fully support the goal of fair and adequate funding of education,” Wolf said. “I believe the people…in the legislative and executive branches…rather than the judicial branch should be making these decisions on behalf of the citizens.”

Wolf was also asked about who he might nominate to Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission, the five-member body that has ultimate decision-making authority in the district.

In January, three of the five commissioners will see their terms expire. Wolf will nominate a person to fill one of those three slots. The other two will be nominated by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Wolf will also have the power to appoint a new chair of the SRC, since current chair Marjorie Neff is among those whose terms will lapse.

Wolf was mum on potential candidates, but repudiated the idea that he would have trouble finding a qualified candidate. Whoever Wolf nominates must be confirmed by the Republican-controlled state senate.

“There are a lot of people who want to step up,” Wolf said.

He added that he’s reviewing candidates right now.

“I’m working through them and I should have that announcement soon,” Wolf said.

The governor also repeated his long-held position that the SRC be abolished and replaced by an elected board, returning Philadelphia to local control for the first time since a state takeover 15 years ago. For that to happen a majority of SRC members must vote to dissolve the body.

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