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Nutter backs district’s request for $110 million more

Mayor Nutter on Tuesday announced support for a Philadelphia School District request that the city increase its funding as much as $110 million.

Mayor Nutter on Tuesday announced support for a Philadelphia School District request that the city increase its funding as much as $110 million.

The funds would pay for full-day kindergarten, transportation services, and other programs to be determined by the district, City Council, and the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, but would likely necessitate a tax increase by the city.

Nutter, who added restoring cuts to alternative schools to his list of priorities, said options for raising the money were still being worked out.

"This is not a time for political posturing," he said at a news conference. "This is a time for political leadership."

The news came as the district presented its $2.8 billion 2011-12 budget to Council in a dramatic, sometimes contentious, daylong hearing.

Its current proposal includes cuts to cover a $629 million budget shortfall, caused, district officials said, by a loss of federal stimulus funds and state funding. A gap of that size, officials say, would mean cuts to kindergarten, transportation, individual school budgets, and other programs.

The city is scheduled to give the district $815 million for the next school year. The primary question on the table Wednesday was how much more the district wanted.

The sands shifted several times during the hearing, with district officials declining to ask for a specific figure, asking for somewhere between $90 million and $135 million, and then - after pointed questions from council members and a closed-door meeting with Nutter and Council leadership - coming up with the $75 million to $110 million figure.

Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, all her top deputies, and three members of the SRC attended the hearing, which attracted dozens of students, advocates, and community members. The students waved signs protesting the proposed cuts to alternative education.

Ackerman highlighted the district's eight straight years of test-score growth and improvement in its graduation rate. She said the district had been careful in making excruciating budget choices, and would be a good steward of more money.

"You're asking us to make difficult decisions, and we're making them," she told Council. "You can agree with us or disagree. We're asking you for help."

Several Council members said they would support more funding only if district officials could assure them it would go toward full-day kindergarten and transportation and not some other shortfall.

And they peppered district officials with questions for hours, asking about everything from noontime aides and arts and music programs to alternative programs and funds for safety initiatives.

The city and the district are now on compressed timetables. Both are supposed to adopt budgets by the end of May.

Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch said the SRC would adopt a provisional budget Tuesday, but it would then adopt an amended budget probably at the end of June depending on what the city - and Harrisburg - came up with.

Council has already said it would not meet its May 31 charter deadline, but if it did not pass a budget by July 1, it could not spend money.

How much support the district can count on from the 17-member Council was not immediately clear.

Some signaled cautious willingness to help, though no one committed to raising taxes.

Councilman James F. Kenney said that it was time to do some "heavy lifting."

"You cannot profess to be a proponent of public education and a person who wants these kids to succeed and then not provide them with the resources," Kenney said.

Asked if he would support a tax increase to help the district, Kenney said he was "not prepared to say that right now."

But it was clear that not everyone was in lockstep.

Councilman Bill Green suggested the district had not prioritized the cuts correctly and was playing politics.

"To put things on the chopping block that we know are efficacious like early-childhood education and full-day kindergarten doesn't start the conversation in the right way," Green said.

He told district officials that for more funding, they would need to be prepared to be more accountable to the city - as accountable as the city's own departments must be to Council.

"The level of cooperation - from my perspective - would have to change in order for me to offer my support," Green said.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chairwoman of the Education Committee, said that whether a tax increase would be proposed is "the big question."

"At this point, with numbers moving all around, I don't think anyone's prepared to make that decision," she said.

Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. said he believed Council would go for some help but not everything the district is asking for.

"Essentially, their ask is above a millage shift and would call for a tax increase," Goode said. "And clearly there isn't going to be a tax increase."

About 30 percent of the district's budget comes from the city, including a portion of the property taxes and a liquor-by-the-drink tax.

One way to raise revenue would be to shift the millage rate, which determines how property taxes are divided between the city and the schools. While shifting the millage rate would have no effect on taxpayers, doing so would take funds away from the city.

Raising the school district portion of the property tax is also an option. That could be done as an amendment after the city budget is passed.