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Council delays decision on how to aid Philly schools

Not yet persuaded of the need to raise taxes for the Philadelphia School District, City Council will take five more days to decide whether to tax sugary drinks, hike property taxes, or cut services to save school programs.

Not yet persuaded of the need to raise taxes for the Philadelphia School District, City Council will take five more days to decide whether to tax sugary drinks, hike property taxes, or cut services to save school programs.

Following a full day of testimony that featured School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman jousting with Council members over her priorities, Council postponed votes on the city budget until Thursday morning. The budget bills include measures that could provide up to $100 million for the schools.

Final budget passage would come no earlier than June 23.

Council's 17 members were not close to a consensus on how to address the district's funding needs, and were openly divided on which financial gesture would induce similar action by the state legislature.

"There were no votes in Council today to bring this to a conclusion," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, a leading proponent of increased school funding by the city, which raises $600 million in property taxes for the district. "I still believe there are least nine members of Council who know that the state expects us to do more, and I have confidence that we will do so next week."

Sánchez favors a property-tax increase over a soda tax, but said the city must find some way to raise more money. Councilman Bill Green said the city could direct $51 million to the district through cuts in its own budget and by dipping into its fund balance.

Mayor Nutter has proposed measures aimed at generating the $102 million requested by Ackerman, whose administration sent out more than 3,400 layoff notices this week to help close a $629 million deficit.

Nutter wants Council to pass a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, covering just about every sweet drink except unsweetened juice and flavored milk. As an alternative, he proposed a 10 percent property-tax hike.

Council's majority whip, Darrell L. Clarke, has proposed a more modest tax bill that would raise property taxes 3.5 percent and direct $50 million to the district.

No majority for those initiatives has materialized from skittish Council members, who raised property taxes 10 percent last year and the sales tax the year before.

Nutter was clearly frustrated Friday by Council's inaction.

"There are a lot of ideas floating out there, but most of them seem to want to avoid taking strong action," he said. "The need is clear, the solution is clear, and all of us need to face the stark, cold reality."

Council members do not appear to oppose another plan by Nutter to raise $6 million for schools by hiking street-parking rates in Center City and University City.

Nutter challenged Council members not to "let themselves get browbeaten" by the beverage industry's opposition to his drink-tax proposal.

"Thursday really becomes judgment day," Nutter said. "As a city, we need to be concerned about the message we're sending to the children of this city, and of the nation."

The School District's needs were front and center during Friday's Council hearing, with members asking detailed questions of Ackerman, who underscored the progress the district has made in the last eight years.

The $629 million in cuts, which have already been approved by the School Reform Commission for the district's 2011-12 budget, could wipe away the district's progress over that time, Ackerman said.

"I sincerely believe this district is at a tipping point," she testified.

Whatever Council contributes would restore some of the cut funding. The district presented a priority list of restorations, with one - full-day kindergarten - already taken care of by Title I funds, reserved for schools that educate low-income children.

Also endangered: yellow school bus service for thousands of public and private school students; 41 school nurses; school counselors; and art and music programs.

Ackerman appeared uncomfortable, even testy, as Council grilled her on district priorities.

"I'm an educator, not a politician," she said at one point.

Council members questioned why initiatives they valued - such as reduced class sizes and accelerated programs for at-risk children - were on the chopping block, while summer school and Promise Academies were funded.

Promise Academies, district-run turnaround schools that receive extra money per student and have longer school days and years, are one of Ackerman's signature initiatives.

Green and Councilman James F. Kenney pushed particularly hard on summer school, which under Ackerman expanded to a $39 million, full-day program in 2010, with academics and enrichment. In the 2011-12 budget, it was cut to $21 million for an 18-day summer program called Summer Learning and More, or SLAM.

Council members said it was still too costly and should be reserved for students who needed summer classes to be promoted.

Ackerman said that while the time was short, summer school was vital.

"The research is clear," she said, "and we believe it's part of the reason we believe we had accelerated achievement and improved academic progress."

But Green was pointed.

"From my perspective, I'm not willing to provide additional resources for $21 million of SLAM as opposed to smaller class sizes," he said. "From my perspective, your 'ask list' is reduced by $21 million because I think you're making a bad choice."

He and Sánchez also questioned the district's spending on Promise Academies. Promise Academy funding in the 2010-11 budget, $7.8 million, would rise to $26.9 million in the 2011-12 budget, with the program expanding from six schools to 17.

Sánchez said she opposed the Promise Academy expansion.

Said Ackerman: "We're making a choice, but I can tell you that if we don't attend to these schools, you will see more of these young people and their families in social services. You will see more young people incarcerated. It is coming."

Later in the hearing, Council members focused on how to find the extra money the district wants, though many appeared less than lukewarm to the mayor's soda-tax proposal.

The 2-cents-per-ounce tax would go into effect Oct. 1 and, according to the administration, raise $60 million for the remainder of the district's fiscal year, $80 million for an entire year.

But members questioned its legality, wondered whether there were loopholes in what would or would not fall under the tax, and asked why Nutter was not this year, as he did last year, pushing the tax as a way of promoting good health by reducing soda consumption.

"Now we don't hear anything about the obesity issue," Council President Anna C. Verna said. "What about so many other items that have sugar content?"

City Finance Director Rob Dubow, in response, said: "We obviously still think there would be health benefits if consumption went down, but our main focus is the tax revenue."