Democratic mayoral candidate Nelson A. Diaz is staking his campaign on city schools.
Abolish the School Reform Commission, Diaz says. Establish a local school board and universal prekindergarten. Connect needy students with social services.
"I want to be responsible for the school system," Diaz said in an interview Tuesday with the Inquirer Editorial Board.
Diaz fleshed out his ideas with a new education policy paper that described a plan for raising an additional $215 million for the Philadelphia School District short-term, and up to $500 million long term.
Several of the building blocks of his plan would require support from places beyond a mayor's control - City Council and the Republican-controlled state legislature - to be viable. Two would require changes to the state constitution.
Key elements of Diaz's plan include:
Raising the city's commercial real estate tax rates while reducing the same for wage and business taxes. This has been a popular proposal among the current crop of mayoral candidates. It requires, however, a change in the state constitution to permit commercial real estate to be taxed at a different rate than residential properties. Diaz estimated the changes could raise $20 million short-term and up to $100 million long-term.
Improving the return on the city's pension fund investments. Diaz said there would be no short-term impact, but estimated that upward of $150 million could be freed up for schools over time if the pension fund could more closely match market returns. He did not estimate how long that might take.
Collecting delinquent taxes to raise $75 million. Critics have often said the city could do a better job of going after tax deadbeats.
Changing the Center City tax-abatement program going forward to grant 10-year abatements on real estate tax on new construction only for the portion of the tax that would go to the city. Property owners would still be liable for the 55 percent of the tax owed the School District. Diaz estimated that would boost school revenue $40 million to $50 million over the long term.
Expanding liquor sales hours and raising the liquor tax in Center City. Diaz estimated that could raise $10 million short-term and $15 million long-term.
Redefining nonprofit status for universities and large medical facilities in the city. Here, too, a change in the state constitution would be required - and would surely face opposition from the "meds and eds." Diaz pegged the short- and long-term boost at $60 million.
Expanding partnerships with community organizations to provide more after-school programs for students. Diaz estimated that could be worth $50 million both short and long term for the district.
Diaz, in the interview, said that dismantling the SRC was a top priority. Its successor ought to be a school board appointed by him, he said.
"You put the parents back in charge of the schools," Diaz said. "You hold me accountable for helping fix the schools. That is the most important thing we can do in this city."
The 9½-page proposal is among the more detailed school funding plans offered thus far by candidates in the May 19 Democratic mayoral primary. State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams has similarly vowed to "work to aggressively collect delinquent property taxes, free up dollars by shoring up the city's underfunded pension system, and implement a long-term plan to increase commercial property taxes."
Diaz - whom the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers bypassed for its endorsement in favor of former City Councilman James F. Kenney - said he was the only candidate who could effectively transform city schools as mayor.
"I don't believe any of these folks have the capacity or have been able to be an executive to reform the schools in a proper way," Diaz said. "I want to give my last years to making sure that this school system works for our kids."