ON THE surface, it's a no-brainer: The city has the power to grant up to $55 million to the Philadelphia School District to help it operate. The grant won't cost the city any money - it will be repaid with proceeds from the state sales tax.
The district desperately needs every dime it can get. It is facing a deficit of $216 million and will have to begin another savage round of layoffs and cutbacks unless more money is forthcoming between now and June 30.
So, why is City Council balking at giving the full amount? Why is it deliberating on a bill that would grant the district only $20 million?
The story behind this is both simple and complicated.
The simple part is that Council - particularly Council President Darrell Clarke (who increasingly calls the shots) - often exhibits a strange mix of hostility and indifference to the district's needs.
Council hearings on the district are almost always accompanied by doublespeak. Council members decry the academic performance in the district and wonder out loud why it isn't better, while simultaneously shrugging over the need for more money.
As if they don't get the connection between adequate funding and adequate schools . . . or don't want to get it.
There are exceptions. Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez understands the plight of the district and has, at various times, proposed ways to divert more local money to the schools with ideas that have gotten the cold shoulder from her colleagues.
Then there is Clarke. He is apparently angry that one of his pet ideas - using the sales-tax money to lower the city's pension debt - did not get off the ground. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill making a "temporary" one-cent add-on to the local sales tax permanent and assigning most of the money to the district.
Clarke has expressed impatience that the district hasn't moved more quickly to sell its surplus properties to raise money, though the district argues, persuasively, that it is moving as fast as it can. Some of its more valuable properties, such as the long-empty William Penn High School, on North Broad Street, shouldn't be disposed of in a fire sale. The district has a responsibility to sell properties to the highest bidder, not the most politically connected one.
In the meantime, Clarke questions the district's need for money, vaguely suggesting that it still has fat tucked away in its budget.
If the district has a pile of money sitting in a secret room somewhere, we're betting Superintendent William Hite would sure like the key. Over the past three years, the School Reform Commission has made close to $1 billion in cuts, reduced staff by 5,000 and taken a machete to administrative costs.
At this point, denying the district's severe financial stress is like denying climate change.