Pa. House approves $45 million more for Philly’s schools

    The Pennsylvania House passed a bill Monday that directs $45 million in additional state aid to Philadelphia’s cash-starved schools, but only under certain conditions.

    One of those conditions is that the money actually materializes.

    The state has apparently persuaded federal officials to forgive a years-old debt, freeing up millions of dollars for public education.

    However, Gov. Tom Corbett’s office said that negotiations between the state and feds over the debt have not been finalized. Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni declined to provide more details.

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    Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen, who has played a key role in the negotiations, said it’s his understanding that the two parties simply need to complete paperwork before the deal is officially done.

    Erik Arneson, a spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, also said he has “no reason to think things won’t work out.”

    But Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, is more skeptical.

    “It’s not done until it’s done,” he said. “Folks need to remember that this fine and penalty has been one that’s been in existence for probably over 15 years. And if it wasn’t agreed to in 15 years, I’m not sure how we can expect it to be agreed to on its face [before schools open in September].”

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which was owed the funds, declined to comment.

    $45-million payment comes with strings attached

    Even if a deal is finalized between the state and federal government, the additional funding won’t immediately go into the Philadelphia School District’s coffers.

    Before that happens, Pennsylvania’s education secretary must determine that the district has “begun implementation of reforms that will provide for the district’s fiscal stability, educational improvement and operational control.” That stipulation is in the legislation passed by the House Monday.

    Those “reforms” could include labor changes.

    The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the school district are now negotiating a new contract. Their current agreement expires Aug. 31. District officials have asked for $133 million in labor concessions, mostly from the teachers union.

    School district officials also begged the city and state for a combined $180 million in extra aid in order to bring back thousands of laid-off employees, including teachers, assistant principals, counselors and noontime aides. But not all of that came through.

    The state is providing about $2 million in additional basic education funding for Philly’s schools, compared with Corbett’s original spending proposal for 2013-14. The Senate is planning to return Wednesday to give final approval to the bill just passed by the House, which directs another $45 million to the schools.

    Corbett has also signed legislation that would allow Philadelphia to extend its 1 percent sales tax, which was previously due to expire in 2014. That is expected to enable the city to borrow $50 million for the district this fiscal year.

    Meanwhile, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is promising an extra $28 million for the schools from improved tax collections. (Corbett is betting on slightly more, $30 million.) Council members also passed a $2 tax on every pack of cigarettes, which would have raised about $45 million for the district this school year, but the state did not pass enabling legislation needed to make that a reality.

    Where does that leave Philly’s schools? With about $127 million in extra city and state funding, if a number of loose ends are tied up. That is $53 million less than what district officials said they needed to avoid draconian cuts to programs.

    On Monday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers again disagreed over whether the state adequately funds school districts across Pennsylvania.

    “We’ve managed to hold the line on taxes generally, control spending significantly, [and] provide record funding for education,” said state Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny, on the House floor.

    Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Allegheny, countered, “The budget fails to make public education a top priority.”

    Some lawmakers, district officials say more work remains

    To help fill the Philadelphia School District’s remaining budget gap, Sen. Hughes said he would again advocate in the fall for legislation aimed at helping the city collect delinquent taxes. Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, D-Philadelphia, said he would keep pushing for a bill that would let the city tax cigarettes.

    The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools is also planning to rally at City Hall Tuesday in hopes of convincing Council members to find more aid for the district.

    And Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said she would continue to fight for more state funds.

    “We, along with other groups locally, have already begun to meet to talk about, how do we avoid this situation next year?” she said. “How do we make sure we’re not in a situation where we’re begging for funds school district by school district, but actually working together to support a new school funding formula?” 

    Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite and School Reform Commission chairman Pedro Ramos said in a statement Monday that they were “pleased” that the House passed legislation directing an extra $45 million to the district. But they, too, said that there is still unfinished business to be done.

    “As we have stated throughout this process, much more work remains in order to ensure sufficient recurring funds and affordable spending levels that will allow us to provide all students with a safe, high-quality education,” they said. “We are committed to continuing our work with elected officials and our labor partners to direct every possible dollar to students and classrooms.”

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