Philly state lawmakers to Corbett: Give extra money to schools now

Money is so tight in the Philadelphia school district that Superintendent William Hite said he may not be able to open schools on time if he is not assured soon that more city funding is on the way.

Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke both want to provide extra cash, but they’re quarreling over how to do that.

In light of the schools’ massive budget shortfall, Philadelphia-area state lawmakers are trying to push Gov. Tom Corbett to immediately give the district millions of dollars that have been set aside. The Corbett administration has long argued that the district’s unions must make major changes before the cash is released.

Corbett’s funding package for Philly’s schools, announced in June, includes a one-time infusion of $45 million that originated from an apparent settlement with the federal government. Before Corbett hands over that money, state law requires his education secretary to certify that the district has begun to implement financial, educational and operational “reforms.” 

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) said that the school district has already executed big changes, like closing schools and slashing its budget. He believes that the Corbett administration legally can, and should, release the $45 million payment ASAP.

“Hopefully they’ll get to the point where they will not stand in the school doors of these kids who deserve to have the adults act like adults,” he said. “[The School Reform Commission has] closed 31 schools to try to make a much more efficient and well-run operation.”

Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia) is also trying to persuade the Corbett administration to provide $45 million to the district now.

“Pennsylvania realized an unexpected windfall and some of that was to be directed to the district if it met satisfactory measures of reform,” he said. “The Philadelphia delegation is comfortable that it has.”

The Corbett administration, however, is not. 

Pennsylvania budget secretary Charles Zogby gives the SRC much credit. He said it did “yeoman’s work” in shutting down dozens of city schools. But he also wants to see changes from the district’s labor unions, particularly the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, before the state opens up its wallet.

“The savings and the reforms … are necessary to put the district on sure footing going forward,” said Zogby. “That, in everyone’s mind here, is still critical before any money flows to the district.”

Zogby declined to provide specifics about the changes being sought.

The SRC has asked the PFT for cuts in salaries and benefits, as well as for work-rule revisions. To help fill the district’s $304 million budget gap, the SRC is hoping for a total of $133 million in concessions from its labor unions.

District officials also requested an additional $180 million in combined funds from the city and state governments. Corbett’s funding package would come up with about $127 million from the two parties.

Corbett’s plan counts on Council extending a temporary 1 percent local sales tax, which has been authorized by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. This would allow the city to borrow $50 million for the schools this year against the future tax revenues, and generate $120 million for the schools in future years.

Nutter has said that the sales-tax extension is the only way to provide the schools with desperately needed city funds immediately, but Council President Darrell Clarke sees it as a “bad deal” that depends on a regressive tax. If the sales tax is extended, he believes that the revenues ought to be split between the schools and the city’s chronically underfunded pension system.

Clarke has proposed alternative ways to generate additional money for the schools, such as having the city purchase district properties and assets for $50 million.

Meanwhile, PFT president Jerry Jordan indicated this week that the school district and union leaders aren’t close to reaching an agreement. The PFT’s current contract expires Aug. 31. Jordan argues that teachers are unfairly being asked to bear the brunt of the budget shortfall.

“The district’s current contract proposals will not create better schools,” he said. “Rather, they will cause a mass exodus of high-quality educators and a deterioration of teaching and learning conditions in our schools for years to come.”

When Superintendent Hite was asked whether he belives the state should provide the $45 million state payment now, he said, “Naturally, I want all monies available that are available. … This is a hope that we’re getting closer and closer to finalizing an agreement with the PFT and other labor partners, and those agreements have to be around some of the reforms that will be certified.”

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