Education

Pennsylvania Governor Gives $265 Million to Philadelphia Schools. School Officials Unsatisfied.

by | August 7, 2014
 

By Kristen A. Graham and Amy Worden

Gov. Corbett said Wednesday that he would advance the troubled Philadelphia school system $265 million, but officials said that action -- which represents no new revenue or savings -- would not avert layoffs or guarantee that schools would open on time.

Corbett traveled to Philadelphia to make the announcement, standing at a news conference flanked by officials including Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and School Reform Commissioners Feather O. Houstoun and Farah Jimenez.

Hite said he appreciated Corbett's affirmation, but underscored that the governor's advance did not touch the School District's $81 million shortfall. The district has planned on the $265 million since June, when it asked for that sum.

Layoffs, a shortened school year, and class sizes of 40 and more are all still possible, the superintendent said.

"The only thing that prevents that is certainty around revenue," Hite said, "revenue not just to start the year, but to ensure that the people we carry on payroll are still on payroll at the end of the year."

Hite will make the call on whether schools will open on time by Aug. 15, he said.

At a separate hearing on the district's precarious finances, Mayor Nutter let loose on the governor and others. "We are collectively, pathetically, having a conversation about having to maintain inadequate," Nutter said, his voice rising. "The nation is watching what's happening in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania."

State lawmakers had been scheduled to return to Harrisburg this week to vote on a $2-per-pack cigarette tax for Philadelphia that would have plugged some of the district's budget gap, but leaders canceled that session.

Corbett stopped short of using his authority to compel the legislature to return to the Capitol this month, but he called for lawmakers to come back before Sept. 8, the scheduled first day of school in Philadelphia.

"And I expect them to address this issue as their first and number-one order of business," he said Wednesday.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled House say voting on the Philadelphia tax bill is a priority at their next scheduled session Sept. 15, but would not commit to returning early to resolve the issue.

Several Philadelphia lawmakers -- all Democrats -- who attended the City Hall hearing called by Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) expressed disgust.

Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) pointed to rows of students sitting in City Council chambers, holding signs begging for money for schools a month before classes are scheduled to begin. "These people just don't give a damn," Farnese said of lawmakers who would not return to vote for the Philadelphia tax. "This is ridiculous. It's embarrassing."

Hughes asked Hite and Nutter to enumerate steps the district has taken in the last several years to shrink costs. They ticked them off: 32 schools closed, 5,000 employees shed, administrative costs cut more than 50 percent.

Make no mistake, Hite said: The erosion of its public schools has a long-term effect on the city.

"In my opinion, it is eroding public confidence in public education," Hite said of the delay in the cigarette-tax money and the district's perpetual funding crises, adding that he believed the city's economic future was imperiled.

Nutter said that when business people sit down with him to discuss locating offices in Philadelphia, they ask first not about taxes but about schools.

Investing in education "is not rocket science," Nutter said. "It's not even regular science."

But, Sen. John Wozniak (D., Allegheny) noted, "nothing gets people reelected more than bashing on Philadelphia."

Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) said she was disgusted.

"Last time I knew, Philadelphia was still in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," she said.

In announcing the funding advance at a news conference in Center City, Corbett called on the teachers union to step up, saying that Philadelphia Federation of Teachers leadership must be "as committed to the students of Philadelphia as they are to their own interests." He said labor concessions would help smooth passage of the cigarette tax.

The PFT contract expired last summer, and negotiations are barely moving. The district wants more than $100 million in concessions, plus work-rule changes, the main sticking point for the union. Jerry Jordan, the union president, dismissed the notion that his contract was tied to the cigarette tax and said that "PFT members have stepped up every day."

Corbett called out city teachers for paying nothing toward their health care, but Jordan noted that he has said for a year that his members would make health-care concessions.

"The district has not taken advantage of that," Jordan said. A Corbett spokesman said that the governor understood the need for long-term financing, but that the advance did provide help.

"It provides certainty at the beginning of the year," said Jay Pagni.

Students and parents said they needed district and state officials to find a way to make the numbers work.

Christine Brisson, a parent of a student at Masterman School, said the governor's action Wednesday did nothing for the district.

"Like a payday loan," she said, "it won't make things better."

Katherine Garcia, a 15-year-old sophomore at Edison High, standing outside the governor's South Broad Street office, said she was beyond frustrated.

"This is killing not only my education, but others' educations," Garcia said. "That's not OK."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Education