It’s gotten crazy.
Year after year, the Philadelphia school system approaches the abyss and appeals to everyone for help. And city taxpayers, seeing no one else coming, step in to save the day.
Year after year, the district loses students and revenue to charter schools, loses state revenue, and struggles to educate the Commonwealth’s neediest children.
Now the district’s budget hole is so big that the superintendent is saying he can’t open all the schools unless he gets $50 million, presumably from the city, by next Friday.
Folks, this doesn’t work.
We’re somehow in a situation in which the city is committing to permanently erect a two percent differential between its sales tax and that of its suburban neighbors (we’ll be at eight percent, the suburbs six), and we’re committing $120 million a year of that revenue to the schools, far into the future.
And what is the state committing on an ongoing basis? Pretty close to nothing.
The city hopes to get a fast $50 million for the schools now by borrowing it from investors, promising to repay them with revenues from that sales tax hike. But because investors won’t loan that money unless they’re sure the tax increase will actually happen, we can’t get that 50 quickly. So disaster looms, and the superintendent sounds the alarm.
Two points: One, we shouldn’t be making tax policy this way – improvising in a panic because it’s the only thing we can get votes for in the legislature. We should think seriously about the city’s fiscal situation (like the pension fund) and the impact of increasing the local tax burden before we take a step like this.
Two, the city shouldn’t take on this burden unilaterally. Gov. Corbett appoints three of the five members of the board that runs the schools. We should make it clear to him we need a lasting solution that involves all parties, and he should think about whether he wants to go into a re-election year with the collapse of this school system on his hands.
And I’ll add a third point: Even if the city opens its veins and gives again, imposing this lasting sales tax increase, it won’t be enough. The school district will still be in desperate trouble.
Shuttered school doors this fall is a terrible prospect, but so is every other alternative here.
I know the city has tried for years to get the state to live up to its constitutional responsibility to provide a “thorough and efficent system of public education” to little effect.
But the school district has tightened its belt and closed schools. Other districts around the state are hurting, and if ever there’s a moment that offers leverage on the governor, it’s now.