Nutter grapples with school deficit, Council cool to tax hike

    As Philadelphia city officials grapple with a massive budget shortfall in the city school system, one City Councilman wants to sue the state government, but Mayor Nutter seems inclined to raise taxes.

    The hectic struggle to cope with a school funding problem is anything but new.

    Order a drink at a Philadelphia restaurant, and you pay an extra ten percent for the city schools, one of many taxes and subsides enacting over the years in times of funding crisis.The school system is the city’s perpetually hungry child. Some regard it as a profligate spender, others a victim of neglect. But it’s very hungry this year.

    The district says it faces a $629 million shortfall for the coming budget year, and school superintendent Arlene Ackerman wants the city to provide up to a hundred ten million dollars. Without that, she warns, she might have to eliminate all day kindergarten, school transportation, and other programs.

    Speaking to a receptive crowd at a church rally in West Philadelphia Thursday, Ackerman said they need to prod their elected leaders to act quickly.

    “It is time now for our politicians,  our City Council, for Harrisburg, to stand up for our children,” she said, “and if they’re weak, we’re going to have to help them up, that’s what’s gong to have to happen.”Nutter wants to help, but hasn’t uttered the T-word – taxes – in part because he and council have already raised sales and property taxes to cope with the city’s financial problems.But it’s clear enough from signals he’s sent that Nutter thinks a tax hike will be needed. Six Council members are leaving at the end of this year, and they wouldn’t pay a political price for voting to raise taxes. But there’s little sign they’re ready to do that.

    “I don’t want to leave this Council and be part of the team that raised taxes,” said Republican Councilman Frank Rizzo yesterday. “I want to be remembered as a person who tried to do everything humanly possible to avoid a tax increase.”It’s an opinion widely shared in Council. Members complain about school leaders’ priorities, and their ritual threats to cut critical programs. One likely reason Nutter hasn’t publicly asked for a tax hike is that his past revenue-raising ideas, like soda taxes and trash fees were rejected by Council. So he’d  like to see them take the initiative.Instead, Councilman Darrell Clarke has taken a page from New Jersey, where the State Supreme Court just ordered Governor Chris Christie to add an extra 500 million dollars in school funding. Clark wants to sue the state of Pennsylvania on the grounds it is  under-funding poor school districts.   “It’s clear and it’s been documented on numerous occasions, it’s just that we’ve not gone the next level beyond just simply complaining about it,” Clarke said, “and I think it’s time for us to do something about it.”A lawsuit would take years, and it’s been tried before. A Philadelphia suit in the late 90s’s never secured the funding it sought.

    Philadelphia legislators hoping for more state funds believe they won’t get them unless the city steps up with some fresh cash.

    Speaking at the west Philadelphia church rally, Nutter challenged Council members to act.”You’re either going to fund this school system or you’re not, but you’re not just gonna keep talking about it and not do anything about it!” he shouted. “It doesn’t work that way. Don’t stand for that, don’t take that – from anybody!”Speaking afterward, Nutter said he and council have to figure out a course of action over the next two weeks.

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