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Tax hike for schools a hard sale

Mayor Nutter is sending the right message to Harrisburg in promising more aid from the city to help the School District close a $629 million budget deficit.

Too often Pennsylvanians outside of Philadelphia see the city as a beggar always holding its hand out. But with every school district in the state also trying to cope with Gov. Corbett's draconian education cuts, many towns empathize with Philadelphia.

The hope now is that the governor and legislature will be moved to help those who are trying to help themselves and pass a more reasonable budget — one that spends some of an expected $500 billion revenue windfall where it will do the most good — educating the children of Pennsylvania.

Nutter, though, needs to go back to the drawing board to figure out the best way for the city to provide more aid to the School District. He has proposed three different ways to raise taxes in a city whose residents already feel taxed out. They want him to look harder for alternatives.

The options Nutter presented to City Council last week included imposing a property-tax hike, resurrecting the idea of a soft-drink tax, and increasing prices paid at parking meters and kiosks.

But the city has enacted "temporary" property- and sales-tax increases in just the last two years. The beverage industry is ready to keep a soda tax tied up in court for months, if not years. And with Philadelphia trying to attract more people spending money downtown, making parking more expensive makes little sense.

No wonder Nutter's ideas have gotten a tepid response from City Council. The proposals smack of desperation, but the desperateness of the situation seems self-created.

Neither the mayor, nor Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, nor the School Reform Commission can say the School District's situation came without warning. For months, they knew federal stimulus money was drying up. They also knew the newly elected Republican governor was likely to cut education funding.

So why did they wait until the situation reached a crisis level before trying to focus the public on possible solutions? City Council is only weeks away from its summer recess. How can it be expected to make sound decisions that could affect the city's tax structure for years in so little time?

How, too, can such decisions be made when there is still uncertainty about the School District's finances? The IRS is probing its spending. The city controller has accused it of mismanaging funds.

After claiming for days that it couldn't fund full-day kindergarten, the district announced Friday that it would reallocate some federal Title I funds to do that.

That's evidence that if the School District looks more closely at its spending, and City Hall does the same, maybe no tax increases will be needed to at least get the schools past this crisis and provide more time to craft better and lasting budget solutions.