Time is running out on efforts to close the Philadelphia School District's $300 million budget shortfall. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter led a rally for school funding in South Philadelphia while City Council continues to wrestle with the budget.
Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" might well be the theme song for the Philadelphia Public Schools, and it was served up with energy at the rally by a student rock band at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia. The school is a melting pot of 29 different ethnic groups and a place where students and faculty go the extra mile, resulting in wonders like a grade school rock band that can give a professional-sounding performance.
Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent William Hite said schools like this that immerse kids in music and art from kindergarten up face a grim future without new money .
"It's a shame that we are having a conversation about being able to maintain that as opposed to investing more of those resources as we move forward," Hite said at the rally.
Nutter said he won't let the district slip into what he called "a nightmare" of educational opportunities, and is committed to finding an additional $60 million in city funds, starting with an increase in the Liquor by the drink tax .
"I support that proposal which would raise somewhere between 20 and 25 million dollars," Nutter said. "In addition I have had other discussions with the council president and we've talked about proposing an increase on the tax on cigarettes. This idea is in the preliminary stage of exploration. We'll continue to examine a variety of other funding options with city council."
At city hall, City Council President Darrell Clarke said both the liquor and cigarette taxes would require state authorization to implement, which never comes easily. And he noted that the district's plan for salvation presumes $120 million from the state, in addition to the $60 million it seeks from the city.
"The reality is that we cannot impose a local tax beyond our fiscal year, so what able happens on the state level has to happen relatively soon," Clarke said. "And I want to be clear, simply enabling us to raise a tax on our citizens - I don't view that as a state contribution. The ask was 120 from the state and 60 from the city, you can't double-count those dollars."
Even with the state authorization, it's not guaranteed that council will approve the funding. In a speech on the Council floor, Councilman Bill Green questioned the value of investing more in the school district after tax increases in each of the last thee years.
"No case has been made that outcomes will be significantly better or worse with or without the $60 million requested from the city," Green said. "The problem is the district requires $120 million more from the state, which they won't get, and $100 million in concessions from the unions which has been budgeted for years and never achieved."
Just as council was finishing it's weekly meeting, hundreds of school students walked out of classes, going to City Hall and then School District headquarters to say they support extra school funding.
China Biddle was among the sea of student protesters.
"I would like to save our arts, more importantly, arts give us a reason to come to school and have fun because we are in class all day and learning," Biddle said, adding with a shout, "but please, save our schools!"
Time is short. The parties have less than eight weeks to resolve the funding issue.
Support provided by