HARRISBURG - With the clock ticking down to a doomsday budget for Philadelphia schools, state leaders signaled Wednesday that they might ride to the rescue.
Gov. Corbett said he is determined to help solve the district's financial crisis, even as a top Senate Republican outlined a concerted, behind-the-scenes push in the Capitol to assemble a bailout package.
In an unusual move, Corbett issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying he was "committed to finding a long-term solution for the Philadelphia School District that is focused on students and is fiscally responsible for taxpayers."
While pledging general support for the schools, he stopped short of detailing what actions he favors - apart from obtaining concessions from the district's labor unions.
The Republican governor noted that several possible solutions aired in recent days could help close the district's $304 million shortfall in the next fiscal year and ensure that the tsunami of red ink does not roll into the following year.
In an Inquirer interview, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) detailed some of those proposals. Though he made no commitment to sending more state aid, he said he had no problem with letting the city slap a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes to help fund the schools - a City Council-approved levy that requires Harrisburg's blessing - or to extending Philadelphia's extra one-percent sales tax and diverting part of the proceeds to the schools.
"We are sympathetic and we want to be helpful," Pileggi, whose party controls the Senate, said Wednesday. "And to the extent that I can be helpful in giving Philadelphia [City] Council the tools to collect taxes or to raise revenue locally, that would be my first preference."
"I don't think there is one solution to the Philadelphia situation," he said. "And I think it is very likely they will have to borrow some amount to get through the coming school year, just as they have for the current school year. The question is how much."
Prospects for other elements of a bailout have risen and fallen by the day. While saying he was open to the cigarette tax, Pileggi said the parallel push for a liquor-by-the-drink tax had "fallen by the wayside" in Harrisburg - as it has in City Council.
He and Sen. Anthony H. Williams said odds of finding additional federal dollars for the schools, which U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.) had been striving for, look slim - "like a Hail Mary," Williams said.
Williams also said he believed fellow Philadelphia Democrats in the state Senate are supportive of the major bailout proposals. The House delegation, however, appears more divided. Plus, many Republicans in that GOP-controlled chamber have historically balked at sending more dollars to Philadelphia and are unlikely to change their tune without serious arm-twisting.
School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has asked for $60 million more from the city and $120 million from the state. He also wants $133 million in labor concessions, mostly from the teachers' union - as Corbett noted approvingly.
Hite "is asking employees for wage and benefit changes, including sharing a portion of their healthcare premiums and for the ability to staff schools around the needs of students" instead of basing assignments on seniority, the governor's statement said. He said such moves would help the district move resources "back into the classroom for high-quality teaching and improved learning."
Pedro Ramos, chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, and Hite said they welcomed Pileggi's expressions of support for the proposals that would help the city's schools.
"We remain cautiously optimistic," Ramos said after the SRC's Wednesday night meeting. "It's clear from both what we hear privately and what's being reported through the press that many people in leadership seem to be very engaged in trying to find the solutions and find support for the school district both locally and at the state level. We appreciate those continuing efforts."
Hite added: "We continue to be very appreciative of everyone who's trying to take action to help us navigate through this situation."
He said the district was grateful for members of Philadelphia's delegation and other elected officials who have taken the district's funding problems seriously and have been working to try to solve them.