Lately, the coming of spring means Philadelphians can count on three things: high hopes for the Phils in Clearwater, taxes coming due and the shortchanging of the School District of Philadelphia. If last year looked bad, this year looks worse. The District is going to need another $300—possibly $400—million to open doors in 2014.
The school district’s budget is still out of balance in spite of the poorly constructed state plan of one-time federal funding and public school building sales that resulted in only $2 million of the $120 million needed by the School District on an ongoing basis. While taking very little out of the State’s coffers, the Governor pushed through a plan to direct one percent of the City’s current sales tax to the school district. That’s a plan that could bring the District $120 million annually, if approved by City Council.
Although the district has lost millions in state aid since 2011, last August the Council President’s office spokesperson said, “Council will pass an extension of the sales tax.” But to date nothing has moved. In December, PCCY and members of a broad coalition of education advocacy organizations gave the Legislature at “D” and City Council a “C-” for failing to do all that was expected for the schools. The groups called on Council to approve the sales tax transfer by March 31st. The goal of the Coalition is to push City Council to act so that Harrisburg can not use local inaction as an excuse to for failing to appropriate a reasonable level of state aid to the School District.
Like it or not, this is Philadelphia’s problem. Of the more than 250 legislators in Harrisburg, only 35 have districts that include part of Philadelphia. Therefore, most of the state’s elected officials feel indifferent at best to our local funding problems. That’s why Philadelphia City Council needs to make the first move. Doing so can be a peace signal to the state that Philadelphians are willing to do their part.
At the same time, it’s clear that the state isn’t exactly volunteering to help; in fact, the Governor’s office is already crying poor. Budget Secretary Charles Zogby has projected a $1.4 billion deficit that will require cuts, new revenues or a combination of the two,” the AP reports. If they’re so hard up for cash, why did the Governor push a plan to cut the corporate tax rate by nearly a third starting next year? According to the PA Budget and Policy Center, in 2003-2004 the cost of corporate tax breaks for the state was $850 million. Last year it was $3.2 billion. Moreover, previous budget estimates by the Governor’s Budget office have shown that they are prone to exaggerate projected expenditures and dramatically undercount expected revenues.
What is needed is a grand bargain. All politics is a “give and take” process. Making the first move and approving the sales tax shift while urging the state to approve the cigarette tax increase that already passed City Council to meet Philadelphia’s pension costs may be a face-saving way to get these unfriendly partners to begin to work together.
The administration has signaled a willingness to raise education spending, but it’s not clear that they are willing to put any reliable new money on the table. According to the Inquirer, “Corbett will not be proposing new revenue sources to cover the investment.” His idea is reportedly to find the money in pension savings. Even his own party leaders are doubtful the Governor will get it done. “It will be interesting to see how it is accomplished,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Jake Corman, “given an anticipated $1.5 billion in new costs for pensions, Medicaid and prisons. The prospect of $100 million in pension savings ‘is a step in the right direction,’ Corman said, ‘but we will need substantial revenue or savings above that to invest in education.’”
Like it or not, with state money in too short a supply, the sales tax for schools is an opportunity that City Council cannot afford to have pass them by. Things have gotten beyond bad enough already. PCCY recently learned that there are only 16 librarians in the entire district and, alarmingly, only one nurse for every 866 children and one counselor for every 600 students. We cannot let this become the status quo. But if City Council does not take action on the sales tax and $120 million of annual revenue, these sorts of school horrors might be the least of our worries.