Education and employment were the focus of a recent candidates forum featuring a few of the Democratic hopefuls vying for an open Eighth District City Council seat.
Thursday’s event, held during a Northwest E.P.I.C Stakeholders meeting, gave Cindy Bass, Greg Paulmier, Andrew Lofton and John Churchville the chance to introduce themselves just as they began circulating nominating petitions.
Incumbent Democrat Donna Reed Miller, who has lead the district since 1996, recently announced her plan to retire from the post.
Andrew Lofton, a supervisor with the Urban Affairs Coalition, took the opportunity to talk about his interest in making the diversity-rich district, and the city at-large, a place of equal opportunity.
Bigger goals through education
In particular, Lofton said he wants to make sure all of the city’s public schools are of the same quality. He said he wants to work directly with the Philadelphia School District to accomplish this goal.
But Lofton also said he wants to give parents a choice when it comes to where their child is educated. He said he is working on creating a scholarship that would support parents interested in private schools.
“It’s about access. It’s about opportunity,” said Lofton to the small group gathered inside the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology in West Oak Lane.
Former ward leader and repeated Eighth District candidate Greg Paulmier agreed with Lofton that Philadelphia School District schools need to be equally funded.
But unlike Lofton, Paulmier doesn’t support school choice and is particularly against funding more charter schools. He said he would pressure Harrisburg to direct more state funding to the Philadelphia School District, and advocate for that money to go to existing district-run schools, not to be stretched thinner for a charter school system.
“The amount of money we have for public education in Philadelphia is not sufficient,” said Paulmier. “I would be in favor of using the dollars we get for Philadelphia to strengthen the public schools.”
Cindy Bass, narrowly defeated by Miller in 2007, was also interested in better funding for Philadelphia’s public schools. Specifically, Bass said the School District leaves a lot of grant money on the table each year that it could use desperately.
She said it’s a mystery why Philadelphia is passed over for grants such as those offered through the Gates Foundation.
“Philadelphia has applied several years in a row and has never been awarded a grant and yet a city like Pittsburgh, which is a smaller district, is obviously much more organized. We need to get to the bottom of why that’s taking place,” said Bass.
The long-time staffer with U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Phila.) said she also wants to hold monthly meetings with parents and educators in the Eighth District to discuss and work out issues and concerns they have with schools.
Instead of funding, first-time candidate John Churchville focused on the need for schools to include more math and science in their curriculum and in particular, the math and science behind sustainable, or green, technology.
He said that knowledge will allow students to graduate with some of the skills necessary to get green collar jobs.
“No longer can we sort of say you can be whatever you want to be,” he said. “We need to steer kids and then they can do that and whatever else they want to do.”
The former teacher said he wants to visit every school in the district to talk about this goal and to start a dialogue with students and staff about what improvements they’d like to see in their building.
Like Churchville, the other three candidates briefly touched on their plans for bringing more jobs into the community.
Bass said it’s important for new businesses to fill the increasing number of vacancies found along the District’s commercial corridors. Crime, she said, and the perception of it, make that goal hard to fulfill.
“We lose employers who are thinking about coming to the district because they don’t want to come if it seems to be a violent, out-of-control neighborhood,” said Bass.
Lofton agreed with Bass and said it’s important that residents have the opportunity to work where they live.
He said he wants to make Germantown Avenue, one of the city’s largest and most history-rich commercial corridors, more of a tourist destination. The money generated from increased foot-traffic, he said, could be reinvested into the community to make it stronger.
Greg Paulmier said he’d like to continue renovating houses in the Pulaski section of Germantown, which he’s done for more than 30 years, but also expand to other parts of the district as a job creation enterprise.
Most of the candidates also talked about the need to finally create an Eighth District office in the District.
Drop DROP, they say
Towards the end of the program, residents got the opportunity to ask the candidates a question of their own. During that time, the group was asked about the city’s controversial Deferred Retirement Option Program – or DROP – and term limits for City Council.
Paulmier said he’s against term limits, but said he’d like to level the playing field by placing a dollar limit on outside campaign contributions.
Bass said she does not support DROP, which allows city employees to pick a retirement date four years in advance and start placing their pension payments into an interest-bearing account, which they drain in a lump-sum the day they retire. This is in addition to the standard pension payments they receive following retirement.
She also said she did not support term limits, but added she wasn’t interested in ending her career serving City Council.
Lofton said he does support term limits, but only supports the DROP program for firefighters and police officers.
Debate organizers also invited Latrice Bryant, Verna Tyner and one other candidate to the event. Other expected candidates running in the Eighth District include:
• Jordan Dillard
• Donna Gentile O’Donnell
• Anita Hamilton
• Bill Durham
The story above is a corrected version with regard to Cindy Bass’ comments about crime.