PHILADELPHIA School District officials breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as a local cigarette tax - $2 per pack to provide key funding for schools - cleared the final hurdle in Harrisburg after months of suspense.
The state Senate approved the bill, 39-11, one day after lawmakers in the House passed it. It heads to Gov. Corbett, who is expected to sign it publicly today. The tax is expected to generate at least $49 million this school year for the embattled district, erasing a sizable deficit and averting massive layoffs.
School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green and Superintendent William Hite applauded local and state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for working together on the issue. The cigarette-tax funds, along with $120 million from the sales tax extension approved by City Council, will provide $170 million in new recurring funds for the district.
"This is a significant move for the district and allows us to start from a wholly inadequate but substantial revenue base that prevents us from having to present doomsday budgets or significant cuts so we can focus this spring on [investing] in the future," Green said.
With $32 million in cuts enacted by the district last month, including reductions in school police and building maintenance, the district has a balanced budget, but many schools are still without full-time counselors, nurses, librarians and basic supplies.
Green and others were quick to point out that a fair funding formula is still needed. "We believe we need a funding formula that treats districts appropriately and does not end up with a 'hold harmless' provision. . . . We'll get the funding formula and see what happens in the spring."
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, D-Philadelphia, who sponsored the original bill, called the cigarette tax "the epitome of what is wrong with Pennsylvania."
"We are depending on cigarette smokers to close the financial hole that exists in the city," Williams said in a statement. "This commonwealth needs to do much more to reverse course and rededicate itself to the mission of public education. We need a modern funding formula that fairly distributes the precious billions in revenue that we now pay to deliver a first-class education."
The bill adopted by both chambers was a "clean" version, minus the economic-improvement zones and hotel taxes for other parts of the state, which had become a point of contention earlier this summer. The bill would, however, allow charter-school applicants in Philadelphia to appeal to a state appeals board if turned down by the School Reform Commission. The bill would automatically expire in 2019 if not renewed.
The legislation appeared to be on its way to approval back in July when it was originally passed by the House. The Senate then inserted language unrelated to Philly schools before sending it back to the House, where it stalled.
Despite the uncertainty, Hite announced that schools would open on time, thanks to assurances from Corbett and House Republican leaders that the cigarette tax would be prioritized when lawmakers returned to session this month.