There is a new plan afoot by the Philadelphia City Council to fund the school district.
City Council President Darrell Clarke says the proposal would at first give the Philadelphia School District nearly all of the money generated from keeping a sales tax surcharge that was supposed to expire. But after the first year, some of those sales-tax dollars would go to the city’s underfunded pension plan.
“We think this is a balanced approach we are looking for if this legislation, along with a couple of other measures, are enacted to provide more than the $120 [million] that has been discussed over the last couple of months,” Clarke said. “We think it’s an approach to put both those entities on a path to stable footing, so I think it is something we should look forward to implementing.”
Starting in year two, this plan counts on creating a Philadelphia cigarette tax — something leaders of the Pennsylvania Legislature would have to approve and, so far, have refused to do.
Councilman Curtis Jones introduced a bill outlining the plan on Clarke’s behalf. He says the $120 million this would send to the school district should be nothing more than a starting point.
“We need to be working on long-term solutions,” Jones said, noting the schools are in financial crisis “every doggone year.” However, he notes such a deal requires getting council, Mayor Michael Nutter, the legislative leadership in Harrisburg and Gov. Tom Corbett all on the same page.
Last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed legislation allowing the city to earmark almost all of the revenue from the sales tax extension for the schools. State lawmakers would have to amend that measure for Clarke’s plan to work.
Mayor, schools chief have reservations
Nutter is concerned about what might happen if the state’s blessing doesn’t come through.
“If they don’t amend it in the exact same fashion as the City Council bill introduced today, the school district will not get the $120 million in the first year and the pension fund will not get any dollars as well,” he said. “That is, in my view at least, a risky proposition.”
Nutter is pushing for council to add a “fall-back” provision to its bill that would ensure the schools get $120 million next year even if Harrisburg doesn’t act.
In a statement issued later Thursday, schools Superintendent William Hite echoed Nutter’s concerns, saying that the proposal does not “reflect the urgency of the crisis.”
“We thank City Council President Darrell Clarke for advancing legislation that could potentially bring an additional $120 million to [the school district] next year through the 1-percent sales tax extension. However, this proposal would require additional approval from the General Assembly, which places the school district at risk of not receiving the funds at all,” he said.
The gradual decline in the city appropriation would leave “our students and schools in the same predicament they face today — in serious need of additional recurring, long-term revenue,” said Hite.
Additional reporting by Holly Otterbein.