THE MAYOR DROPPED the bomb about five minutes into his save-our-schools sermon.

He took the pulpit yesterday at St. Matthew AME Church, at 57th and Race streets, and began preaching about the importance of education and the need for a renewed public commitment "to our children."

Then, in an abrupt change in the order of service, he interrupted his sermon to prepare the congregation for the offering.

"Yes," he said in a thinly veiled reference to possible tax hikes. "You may have to dig in your pocket a little bit deeper."

To their credit, the 250 or so people who were gathered from 80 African Methodist Episcopal churches in the Philadelphia region didn't even flinch. They knew the ushers weren't ready to pass the plates yet.

But the mayor's clear message to the entire city was to get ready: We may be taking up a collection.

Later, outside the church, he didn't back away from the likelihood that the city would have to raise taxes to come up with the $75 million to $110 million in new city funding he pledged to raise for the district. (Related editorial, Page 15.)

Nor did he shirk from his responsibility to be the chief advocate for what promises to be a very hard sell in an election year.

"If that's what it takes," he said when I asked about a possible tax increase. "Again. This is a leadership moment."

In his speech to the congregation, the mayor took aim at people who make the "facetious argument" that money doesn't matter.

He cited the district's eight years of steady progress in test scores. It may be the best card the district has to play.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes told me this week that increases in state funding had resulted in achievement hikes "across the state."

"This is not just in Philadelphia," he said. "It's in rural districts, in the coal regions.

"The learning gaps between middle-class districts and the poor and minority districts have narrowed significantly across the state.

"It would be criminal to talk about raising class sizes to 35 or cutting transportation right now."

Doing it now was a recurrent theme from the mayor and from Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who addressed the church before the mayor.

"There can be no more-critical moment," the mayor said, "than now, for our children.

"I'm not saying money is the solution to every problem. But it beats whatever is second."

He didn't even claim to know how he could squeeze another $75 million to $110 million for the schools from an already tight city budget.

"People ask, 'How do we pay for this?' " he told the congregation. "Same way we pay for anything else.

"Somehow we find a way to pay for everything we want, but we have trouble paying for what we need. We need full-day kindergarten and transportation and smaller class sizes."

Joan Krajewski, who chairs Council's appropriations committee, said she wouldn't know where to look for an extra $75 million to $110 million in the budget.

"That's the $64,000 question," she said. "I don't know where it would come from. We'd either have to raise taxes or cut city services.

"The district needs to start by cutting some of those administrators who make $100,000 a year."

But Krajewski said there seems to be some support in Council for the mayor's proposal to increase the city's share of the district's budget. "We want to help," she said. "We just have to sit down as a board and figure it out."

But it will be up to the mayor to sell the idea to Council and to the public, she said.

"It takes leadership to do that," she said. "He has his hands full."

He seemed up for the challenge.

"There is no easy way and no cheap way to do this," he said yesterday. "Larger class sizes would be disastrous. Cutting full-day kindergarten would be disastrous."

Maybe. But when they start passing the collection plates, will the church say Amen?

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