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DN Editorial: Just no funds

Hold "empty shell" schools to your ear and hear the future roar.

NEARLY two weeks ago, we asked where the urgency was on the response to the School District of Philadelphia budget woes from the city and the state. That includes the budget woes for the current school year, which the district anticipates ending with a $29 million deficit.

Last week, the district released its budget for next year, and the shortfall is now $216 million - and that's just to keep treading water. That doesn't include building the district with more programs that Superintendent William Hite wants to add to actually improve education.

Without that money, Hite says the schools will be "empty shells," an even worse version of last year's crisis, when thousands of counselors, librarians and teachers were laid off.

One potential source of money is labor concessions. Two other sources don't represent the most creative thinking in the world - a hike in the city's sales tax and a hike in the cigarette tax - but you'd think it was rocket science, given how little action has been taken on getting them done.

The closest stash is $120 million from a one-point add-on to the sales tax, authorized for use by the district last year by the state Legislature.

For the district to get the $120 million, City Council must approve the transfer, and Council President Darrell Clarke doesn't want to do it. He wants the money split between the district and the city's employee pension fund.

Lately, as a price for approving the transfer, Clarke has talked about creating a local board, similar to PICA, to oversee expenditure of the money by the district.

It looks as if Clarke is playing chicken with the state Legislature, trying to get it to amend the bill it passed last year to include these new items - money for the pension and local oversight - in exchange for Council giving its approval to the transfer. But he has no real leverage in this game.

Using the $120 million to feed the fund and help the district is like taking 50 gallons of solution and trying to make it solve 100 gallons of problems.

Also, the pension fund's problems are long term, while the district's needs are immediate and urgent. While one house is in serious need of repair, the other is burning down.

Even if Council does yield on the $120 million - which it should, without delay - it still leaves the district $96 million short. Hite has proposed raising class size and reducing services to achieve 1,000 layoffs.

To forestall these cuts, Mayor Nutter is trying to convince the Legislature to approve a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes sold in Philadelphia, which would bring in about $90 million in the first year. That bill went nowhere last year. Its chances of passing this year are marginal.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez has suggested changing the city-district split of local property taxes to give $50 million more to the schools. The response? Radio silence.

Hasn't the city suffered enough - in unemployment, high illiteracy rates and deep poverty - from our subpar response to education? As long as leaders are content to play games instead of taking real action, we're dooming yet another generation.