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DN Editorial: Help wanted

Philly schools need aid; lawmakers need to act quick

THOUGH it's hard to believe, the Philadelphia School District's financial situation is about to get worse.

Despite slashing its budget, closing schools and shedding nearly 8,000 jobs in recent years, the district still faces a deficit in the range of $210 million in the next school year.

And it doesn't have much time to come up with the additional money. The School Reform Commission must approve a budget for the 2014-15 school year by May 30. Without assured funding from state and local sources, the SRC will have no choice but to once again cut jobs and programs.

Not much is left to cut. The administration has been decimated. The ranks of counselors, librarians and school nurses have been thinned. Money for supplies and books is scant. We shudder to think what's next.

Despite its very real needs, the district is having trouble getting the attention of the powers-that-be in City Hall and Harrisburg, who are acting as if they have all the time in the world before they have to begin even considering the district's plight.

Tell that to a high-school student who has no access to a guidance counselor, or a third-grader who might like to make it to high school.

There is one ready source to help the district: dedicating $120 million annually in sales-tax revenue to the schools, a plan approved by the Legislature but stuck in City Council. Council President Darrell Clarke wants to devote a slice of that $120 million to paying down the deficit in the city's pension fund.

Another potential source of money is a proposed $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes sold in the city, to bring in $90 million in its first year. Council has passed this bill, but it must get the approval of the state Legislature as well.

So, we have a standoff. Clarke wants the Legislature to approve the cigarette tax so that it will free up some of the sales tax money for the pension fund. The Legislature wants Council to act on the sales-tax extension it authorized last year and doesn't seem interested at all in a cigarette tax.

The Legislature needs to bring the cigarette tax up for a vote on the floor soon, so we know whether that $90 million is coming.

If the cigarette tax bill cannot pass in Harrisburg, we urge Clarke to give up his attempt to hold back a slice of the sales tax money for the pensions and give all $120 million to the district.

The city and state then need to sit down and decide how, between them, they can come up with the $90 million the district will still need. Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez's plan to devote a larger share of the city's property tax to the district is a good idea. If it is unwilling to tax cigarettes, Harrisburg surely can come up with money from the district from its $9 billion education budget.

By the way, this $210 million is just to keep the district treading water as it had to do this year. It does nothing to address Superintendent William Hite's plan to spend an additional $230 million on improving programs and conditions.

Hite's plan is a worthy dream, but we have nightmare to deal with first. Just what are these lawmakers waiting for?