Nutter, Council and school funding wars

    I feel like I spent the day watching a movie I’ve seen a half dozen times before.

    The Philadelphia school system faces a catastrophic funding crisis, and it needs help from the city, which is lot legally but morally obliged to support it.

    Council members air familiar gripes about school district’s leaders: They waste money. They aren’t accountable. They wait till the last minute, then threaten to eliminate the most valuable programs unless they get their money. And, perhaps above all, they should have seen this coming.

    Indeed, you have to wonder why the school district, which knew it would lose federal stimulus funding at a predictable time, somehow faces such a gigantic shortfall for the coming year – $629 million.

    The district says it’s been doing the right thing for students, and test scores are rising (I have to say, I’ve been covering local government for nearly 30 years now, and every superintendent says the kids are making clear, measurable progress. I figure we should be leading the nation in Harvard admissions by now).

    So Council members criticize. Students, parents and community groups demonstrate. State leaders wring their hands and wish they could do more.

    And there’s a point in the movie when it comes down to a choice. There is a serious money problem, and city tax dollars seem the last resort.

    So I’ve seen mayor after mayor bite the bullet and help. Wilson Goode raised property taxes. Ed Rendell enacted a liquor by the drink tax.

    It seems clear now that Mayor Nutter believes a tax hike will be needed, though he won’t utter the words yet. When he proposed a property tax hike three years ago to solve the city’s fiscal problems, Council said no and went for a sales tax increase instead. When he wanted a soda tax and a trash collection fee, Council said no again and opted for property taxes.

    So I imagine Nutter would like to see Council step to the plate this time and propose something.

    It will be an interesting standoff. Councilman Darrell Clarke proposes suing the state for more money. It’s been tried before, and whatever its merits, would take years.

    In the video above, you can get a sampling of what Council members Bill Green, Frank Rizzo and Blondell Reynolds Brown have to say.

    State legislators are hoping they can get some more funding from Harrisburg, but figure that won’t happen unless the city comes up with some more scratch and the teachers’ union agrees to re-open their contract and find some savings (which so far they won’t even talk about).

    When Nutter spoke at a church rally in West Philadelphia today, he told three hundred people in the audience that you keep score in sports, and he wants them to keep score on City Council members’ performance.

    “Listen to what they say, but watch what they do. See, you can’t be for education, and be against funding,” he shouted. “You’re going to hear a whole lot of talk. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and talk some more. Ain’t nobody ever talked their way into the end zone, or talked their way into a home run. You either hit one, or threw one, or you didn’t . You either going to fund this education system or you’re not. But you’re not going to keep talking about it and not do anything about it.”

    The riff brought a standing ovation, and should be make the trailer for the movie.

    But load up on your popcorn. We’re a ways from the final reel on this one.

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