If there is no cigarette-tax agreement in Harrisburg by Aug. 15, Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Wednesday, he will have to lay off employees and consider a delay in the opening of schools.
"There's a lot of uncertainty around what our next move is," Hite said.
The state Senate passed an amended cigarette-tax bill this week, but the legislation requires House approval. The House is out on summer recess and is not scheduled to return until a special session called for Aug. 4. Even then, passage is not assured.
Something has to give, Hite said.
Without the $45 million that seemed a lock before the Senate's surprise changes to the bill Tuesday night, a lot of ugly options are back on the table.
School officials previously said they might have to lay off 1,300 employees, swell class sizes to 40 or more, ax school police officers, and further cut services to students.
At least one of those doomsday scenarios would not come to pass, the superintendent said Wednesday.
"I'm saying definitively, I'm not going to put 40 children in a class," he told reporters, "because they're not going to be safe."
The longer the legislature waits, the more Philadelphia students suffer, Hite said. The district has a $93 million gap in its budget, and when the $2-per-pack Philadelphia cigarette tax seemed assured of passage, the district was expected to reap $45 million this year.
But once the bill passes, it will take 45 to 60 days for the tax to be in place, Hite said, and "we're losing money the longer it's delayed."
That politics has held up what looked like a sure thing for the cash-strapped district is "extremely frustrating," he said.
Mayor Nutter has called the Harrisburg delay "a vortex of political hell with no way out."
The Senate unexpectedly changed the cigarette-tax bill to make it one that would end after five years, a prospect that worries Hite.
"It makes it very difficult to plan long-term," the superintendent said. "We as the School District have to get out of this one-year cycle of fiscal planning."
Another item packed into the new Senate bill was language allowing some municipalities - not Philadelphia - to levy a hotel tax.
"It has nothing to do with educating children," Hite said. "Once again, it's connected or it's a by-product for something that is steeped in politics."
Though July is normally a relatively quiet time for the district, the drama in Harrisburg has changed that this year, Hite said.
Principals are 10-month employees and on summer break, but district officials are formulating "Plans A, B, and C," Hite said, and attempting to figure out "who would be laid off, when would principals have to come in and redo their school budgets."
Hite said layoffs would not be based on seniority, an option the district says it has based on the "special powers" given to the School Reform Commission when it was created. The teachers' union is challenging that position.
The superintendent seemed a little incredulous that a week ago, officials were cautiously celebrating what seemed like a victory for city children.
And now, Hite said, "we're no better off than when we adopted our budget."