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Mayor Nutter is still dogged by two big issues: Violence and education

As he enters his second four years as mayor, Michael A. Nutter says Philadelphia must make progress on public safety and education if the city is to thrive.

Today, Mayor Michael Nutter begins a second term. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Today, Mayor Michael Nutter begins a second term. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)Read more

As he enters his second four years as mayor, Michael A. Nutter says Philadelphia must make progress on public safety and education if the city is to thrive.

"We have a number of critical challenges staring us right in the face," Nutter said in an interview Friday. "These issues are holding the city back. They are like a weight and an anchor around our collective feet."

Two immense and seemingly intractable issues "are the two great challenges simultaneously facing this city," Nutter said. "We can't make progress unless we tackle both of them and make progress on both of them. It's not even enough to make progress on one of them."

Of course, Nutter, who will be inaugurated Monday, spent much of his first term working on those problems with mixed success.

Since 2007, just before he took office, homicides have declined 17 percent, but they hit 317 as of Friday, up from 306 last year.

That brings the number of homicides in his first four years to 1,260, almost identical to the 1,264 homicides racked up under the first term of Mayor John F. Street's tenure from 2000 to 2003. Nutter's promise to reduce homicides from the 1,505 in Street's last term, 2004 through 2007, helped get him elected.

Test scores have been rising at Philadelphia district schools. But only 61 percent of students in those schools graduate from high school in four years, and the departure of controversial Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman further eroded parents' confidence in the system.

Trying to weather the recession without dramatic tax increases, service cuts, or layoffs while implementing reforms in ethics, planning, zoning, and property assessment captured most of Nutter's attention in his first term.

With tax revenue falling, Nutter already has asked department heads to look for more cuts this year, but he said his administration would be "crystal focused" in the next four years on public safety and education and on the related issue of jobs.

Already, members of his administration, led by Chief of Staff Everett Gillison and Managing Director Richard Negrin, have been meeting with representatives from the offices of the Philadelphia District Attorney, state Attorney General, FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Those meetings are in their early stages, but Nutter hopes they will, in the next few months, result in concrete proposals for curbing gun violence.

Most homicides in the city are committed by a relatively small number of repeat criminals, Nutter said, and black men are overrepresented in that group.

"Clearly this is not just a Philadelphia problem; this is a national problem," Nutter said, pointing to bar charts showing breakdowns of homicides by race and sex in various cities. "Why is there such a ready accessibility of guns to this particular population?"

Part of the problem is a culture of violence and revenge in some neighborhoods, he said.

"The No. 1 issue for homicide in Philadelphia is generally classified as argument," he said. "Drugs are not actually really high on the list. . . . It's, 'You looked at me cross-eyed.' It's, 'You bumped into me.' It's anywhere from crazy to stupid."

That culture, however, has found fertile ground in a high dropout rate, illiteracy, and joblessness.

On the cultural front, Nutter is considering programs that use community leaders - some of whom have worked their way from a criminal background to the mainstream - to intervene in disputes before resentments build and crimes happen. Such efforts have helped in other cities, Gillison said.

Nutter also introduced the Philly Rising Program, which targets neighborhoods and offers residents help with cleaning empty lots and finding jobs, among other things. City officials say Philly Rising has reduced crime in some areas.

For young adults who are poorly educated with little or no work experience, Nutter hopes to expand jobs in the energy and sustainability fields. Those industries offer jobs such as weatherization that do not require much education or training, he said.

But, he said, most Philadelphians will have to be well educated to find work in the medical and education fields that dominate this city's economy. He also said a highly educated workforce was key to luring more employers.

"We have to upgrade people's skills and get more kind of entry-level positions while also making sure that we have upper-level positions as well," he said.

That means fixing schools, including getting more students to graduate. Continued budget woes prompted by huge state funding cuts for schools will complicate that task.

But there is a new School Reform Commission, increasing the chances for reform. With the mayor's backing, the SRC is moving forward with a "Great Schools Compact," a document that sets common academic standards for all schools, including charters. It gives charters that meet the standards more flexibility to expand and makes it easier to close those that do not.

Nutter said he also thought the district simply must do more to market the good schools it has. He and his wife, Lisa, researched four public schools before choosing one for their daughter, Olivia.

Residents, he said, will be hearing more from him about the importance of education.

"I'm personally compelled and driven to use the power, presence, and bully pulpit of the Mayor's Office to drive a message throughout this city, that at the heart of any reform of this city, at the heart of any gains to be made by this city, at the heart of any progress for Philadelphia, education is the key. Education is economic development. Education is a poverty-reduction strategy. Education is the great equalizer in this city and in our society."