Philly schools getting far less than requested as Pa. Senate advances budget

     Philly schools getting far less than requested as Pa. Senate advances budget (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

    Philly schools getting far less than requested as Pa. Senate advances budget (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

    The Pennsylvania Senate has advanced a budget that increases Philadelphia’s basic education funding by $14 million next year, far short of the additional $120 million requested by school district officials.

    The GOP-led Senate appropriations committee approved the plan Saturday night, 16-10. Philadelphia’s education spending is detailed in Senate GOP documents attached to the bill, which must now be approved by the full Senate and House.

    Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R-Bellefonte) said that the budget makes a “significant investment” in schools, including about $120 million in new basic education funding statewide.

    “As always, there’s areas that we would like to have probably made stronger investments in,” Corman said. “But we can only spend what we have.”

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    Corman said Gov. Tom Corbett and House leaders support the Senate GOP’s spending plan.

    Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) said that the budget is inadequate.

    “This budget proposal clearly falls short … especially for our distressed schools, in providing them the support that’s necessary to respond to what has clearly been a dramatic reduction in spending for public education,” Hughes said.

    Senate Democrats introduced an amendment that would boost funding for struggling school districts by counting on savings they said would be generated by accepting a Medicaid expansion. Republicans shot it down.

    It is unclear whether the Philadelphia school district, which is facing a $304 million budget gap, will be included in a list of so-called “distressed” districts expected to receive additional funding. The Senate GOP would not provide the list Saturday night.

    Philadelphia school district officials have been pleading for an additional $60 million from the city, $120 million from the state, and $133 million in labor concessions.

    Without additional funding, Philadelphia’s schools will open in September without assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians, secretaries, arts programs and sports, according to district officials. Earlier this month, the school district began sending out layoff notices to about 3,850 employees, or 20 percent of its workforce.

    Fate of cigarette tax uncertain

    On Saturday, the Senate panel also did not consider enabling legislation that would allow Philadelphia to enact a $2 tax on every pack of cigarettes in order to raise $45 million for the schools next fiscal year. But Corman refused to call the proposal dead. 

    “In this day and age, nothing’s dead,” he said. “We might be here a couple days next week.”

    The Philadelphia area’s own House legislative delegation isn’t united in support of the cigarette tax, which could be slowing things down. At the eleventh hour, state Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Philadelphia) is also pushing for alternative ways to fund the schools, including a proposal that would redirect the city’s share of Philadelphia’s casino revenues to the district.

    Senate GOP spokesman Erik Arneson has repeatedly said that it would be difficult to move the cigarette tax proposal forward without unanimous support from the Philadelphia delegation.

    Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, is urging lawmakers to vote against the cigarette tax proposal. Many Republicans in the legislature have taken Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge.

    “It is not fiscally prudent to raise taxes, any taxes, in order to fund any entity that is consistently unable to manage its finances,” said Jennifer Stefano, Pennsylvania director of Americans for Prosperity.

    At the same time, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce backs a $2 cigarette tax to raise money for schools. 

    Supporters of the proposal argue that it is a fairer way to fund the schools than increasing broad-based taxes.

    UPDATE 6/30, 3:30 p.m.: The cigarette tax proposal appears to be dead. State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) said Sunday the legislation will not be advanced by the Senate because House Republicans do not support it.

    On Sunday, Corman said the Senate GOP’s spending plan includes about $15 million in new basic education funding for Philadelphia’s schools.

    Williams also said that Corbett has “identified” other money for the city’s schools, perhaps as much as tens of millions of dollars. Williams said a GOP proposal would make those funds available only if the Pennsylvania education secretary has guaranteed that certain conditions have been met.

    UPDATE 6/30, 5:20 p.m.: A state Senate panel has approved legislation that would allow Philadelphia to make permanent a sales tax, which could be used to raise additional money for the city’s schools.

    The Senate GOP said that the cigarette tax proposal is dead. The Philadelphia schools funding package will now go before the Senate and House floor.

    UPDATE, 6:19 p.m.: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has a plan to raise money for Philadelphia’s troubled schools. Now the package must win support by the legislature.

    These are the details of the plan, according to sources:

    – Extend a sales tax in Philadelphia for 2014-15, which state officials say would enable the school district to borrow $50 million next year.

    – $45 million would be provided thanks to the federal government apparently waiving a debt previously owed to it by the state.

    – The plan would also count on Philadelphia doing a better job collecting taxes, thereby generating an extra $30 million.

    – The plan would also provide about $15 million in new basic education funding for Philadelphia for 2013-14, compared to 2012-13. It is unclear how much of that, if any, is additional money compared to Corbett’s original budget proposal.

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