Philly schools a big issue in Controller debate

You can listen to the entire Controller debate by clicking here.

City Controller candidates Alan Butkovitz and Terry Tracy might be running for the most overlooked office in Philadelphia, but their feisty debate Tuesday night centered on the hottest topic in the city: the cash-strapped school district.

The face-off, co-sponsored by the Committee of Seventy, League of Women Voters of Philadelphia and Young Involved Philadelphia, took place at WHYY.

Butkovitz, the incumbent Democrat, is running for his third term as Controller. Tracy, a GOP newcomer, is an underdog in the bright-blue city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1.

Tracy said Butkovitz has failed to thoroughly scrutinize the school district’s finances. As Controller, Tracy said, he would increase and strengthen school audits.

“Until we have comprehensive, independent reviews of all sections, all components of the school district … we will stumble from crisis to crisis and make poor decisions,” he said.

Butkovitz dismissed Tracy’s criticisms, saying, “It doesn’t surprise me that Terry’s not familiar with our record. He just moved here, I think, last year or the year before, from Upper Darby.”

Butkovitz said he has examined the school district’s budget with a fine-tooth comb — despite a state law that limits his powers.  

“We’ve had to be extraordinarily creative,” he said. “The school district said, ‘What are you doing in our buildings?’ … We said, ‘We got to approve the annual financial statement,’ which is the only thing that the current law allows us to do. … So we got in, and we took pictures of everything else along the way.”

Tracy, a 31-year-old retail director, cast himself as an agent for change. He said the Controller should focus on three main priorities: education, economic development and government transparency.

“It’s time for change and I’m the candidate for change,” he said.

Butkovitz, 61, said that he has run a tight ship at the Controller’s office. He said his team has warned elected officials about the fiscal problems now faced by the city and school district, though they haven’t always heeded his advice.

“We have accurately predicted most of the significant financial disasters in this city,” he said, “and have lobbied and presented solutions for eight years.”

When asked if he planned to resign as Controller if re-elected in order to run in the 2015 mayoral race, Butkovitz said, “You can’t count on me necessarily finishing the term, but there’s a lot to be decided.”

Not surprisingly, the candidates also disagreed on whether the city should sell Philadelphia Gas Works. Butkovitz said privatizing the utility would end up costing the city. Tracy said proceeds from a sale could be used to shore up the city’s underfunded pension system. 

Butkovitz spoke favorably of a proposal by Council President Darrell Clarke to tackle the pension crisis by extending a 1 percent sales tax. Tracy said he would consider Clarke’s plan, but argued that the city has a high tax burden already and that long-term economic growth is the real solution to the city’s pension woes. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.