Philly schools will open on time Sept. 9—somehow

Some good news for parents of Philadelphia public-school children: Schools now seem set to open on schedule Sept. 9.

And some grist for fans of governmental dysfunction in Philadelphia: Even while assuring Superintendent William Hite that he’ll get the $50 million in city money needed to start school on time, Mayor Nutter and City Council continued Thursday to squabble about how to raise the money.

First, at a morning news conference, Nutter said this: “I’m committing to our students, our parents, our citizens today that schools are going to open on time and safely on Sept. 9.”

Hite had said that if he didn’t get assurances by Friday about city help to close a yawning fiscal gap, he could not promise to open all schools on schedule. Without the $50 million, Hite said, he simply would not have enough staff at some schools to operate safely.

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Hite, who has always said he did not care how the city raised the $50 million, said Nutter’s vow to somehow provide the money was reassurance enough. Hite said he could proceed to begin rehiring enough laid-off staff to open schools safely and on time.

Devil in the details

Nutter reiterated that his preferred plan for raising the school money is to make permanent an expiring 1 percent increase in the city’s sale tax. Council has opposed that idea. What was new today was that Nutter vowed that even if the sales tax idea isn’t approved, he would borrow the money to open the schools.

“I believe that all 18 of us—the 17 members of council and myself—will ultimately always put the interest of children and their education and their future ahead of any other concerns that we may have,” Nutter said.

No sooner was Nutter done than council members said they didn’t agree with his plans.

While also vowing to get the schools the money needed to open, Council President Darrell Clarke said he would not support either the sales tax or borrowing approach. He again pushed for his alternative idea, sending the school district $50 million in return for some of its empty buldings, then marketing that real estate.

“You have $200 million of real estate available. Right? For sale,” Clarke said. “And you go out and borrow $50 million. I mean, from a fiscal perspective, this to me doesn’t make a lot of sense. We have a way of doing that without borrowing money and going in debt, and costing both the city and the school district additional dollars. That $10 million in interest payments, I’d much rather put that in the school district’s hand.”

Nutter expressed skepticism about Clarke’s idea, saying it might end up saddling the city with real estate it could not sell in this market.

Clarke insisted the closed schools and other properties would sell: “There are people who are interested.”

Clarke and Nutter also differed on whether the mayor could go ahead with his borrowing plan without City Council approval.

Hite could not be reached for comment on whether the new Nutter-Clarke war of words damaged his confidence that he could open schools on time.

Disagreement over SRC powers

A noisy day in the Philadelphia school situation continued with an afternoon School Reform Commission meeeting. Teachers and other advocates packed the room to protest an SRC proposal to suspend the state school code so that Hite could ignore seniority in deploying teachers back into schools. This is one of several proposed suspensions of the code that Hite sought to maximize his flexibility to plan the start of school.

The state law that set up the SRC gives it a limited ability to suspend parts of the school code in an emergency.

WHYY Reporter Kevin McCorry contributed to this report.

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