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School officials plead funding case in Council

School Reform Commission Bill Green was back in City Hall yesterday, this time asking for more money for the school district.

ONCE A STAUNCH critic of Philadelphia School District spending, former City Councilman Bill Green returned to City Hall yesterday to advocate for millions in additional funding to prevent more than 1,000 layoffs in the district.

Green, the recently appointed chairman of the School Reform Commission, was joined by Superintendent William Hite and district officials in discussing the district's proposed $2.8 billion budget, which requests $440 million in new funding from the city and state along with labor concessions. The district has asked the city for $120 million from the extension of the sales-tax hike and at least an additional $75 million.

Green briefly sparred with some of his former colleagues over where the new money would come from and the district's lobbying efforts in Harrisburg. He continued to underscore the need for more revenue to avoid catastrophic cuts.

"There's no fat, or even flesh, left to cut," Green testified. "We're now talking about amputations. We cannot spend funds we do not have. So, if we have to take drastic action, such as increasing class sizes to 40 students or canceling contracts in order for schools to open, we will do so."

Councilwoman Marian Tasco pressed Green, pointing out that he voted against increased funding for the district numerous times when he was on Council.

Green responded, saying Hite and his administrative team "can win, if given the resources," noting he was less confident in previous district leadership.

A major question throughout the hearing was how the city would come up with funding beyond the sales-tax extension. Green and Hite said they are agnostic about how the money is generated, but one option is a $2-per-pack cigarette tax, which would require approval from the state. Some lawmakers questioned the likelihood of that and called for a Plan B.

"The $75 million is the cigarette tax or it's nothing," said Councilman Wilson Goode Jr.

There was also no consensus on whether the district should receive the full $120 million from extending the sales-tax increase. Although Council wants to split the take between schools and the city pension fund, several members in the audience yesterday held up signs advocating that all the money go to education.

In recent years, city lawmakers have raised property taxes to provide more funding for the district. Council President Darrell Clarke said yesterday that he does not want to go that route this year, but acknowledged the district's need. He said any new money should come with more financial oversight, something that has been met with resistance in the past.

Other Council members echoed Clarke's sentiment about supporting the district, but expressed frustration with the lack of support from state lawmakers.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said getting Gov. Corbett out of office is the only answer.

"I understand clearly that the leadership starts in the governor's office," Johnson said. "He does not have the best interests of the students in the city of Philadelphia" in mind.