Apparently, Philadelphia doesn't really mind that its school system is on the verge of bankruptcy. Guess that Philly pride the city is supposed to be so famous for extends only to its sports teams.
The superintendent of public schools shows up to ask City Council for additional funding, and gets the type of "I'll catch you later" response that a Center City panhandler might expect from a familiar pedestrian.
Six dozen people supporting more money for schools signed up to appear before Council last week, and came away with nothing. It was like watching Kabuki theater. Council members acted interested, and sounded sympathetic, but in the end the petitioners were no better off than when they entered the chambers.
Of course, there was the finger-pointing that exemplifies Philadelphia politics. Council President Darrell Clarke criticized the Nutter administration for not offering an idea to help schools in the mayor's proposed budget. "I find it hard to believe somehow they weren't aware they were going to have this problem," Clarke said. Notice he said "they," not "we."
The best long-term solution would have been a funding increase for schools within the new property-tax system. But rather than make the case to taxpayers for the city's children, the politicians decided keeping the Actual Value Initiative revenue-neutral would cause them less grief.
As it stands, the only idea that seems to have a chance of passing muster with Council and Mayor Nutter is an increase in the by-the-drink liquor tax. Raising the drink tax, which currently generates about $44 million for schools, might bring in an additional $20 million. That's not enough.
The district is facing a $304 million deficit, and hopes to get $120 million from the state, $60 million from the city, and the rest in union employee concessions.
The city is being asked for a third of the needed funds because that approximates its share of the total funding that city schools receive from local, state, and federal sources. But under the current dire circumstances, the city should do much more for its children.
Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez has a good idea. Increase the Use and Occupancy tax charged to commercial properties, which in most cases would be offset by the property-tax cut many large businesses are receiving due to lower AVI assessments.
An exemption she also proposes, covering the first $2,000 owed, would keep half the city's businesses from paying any U&O tax. But that break hasn't kept business groups from condemning the idea.
Douglas G. Hoffman, chairman of the city's Building Owners and Managers Association, told the Philadelphia Business Journal that any increase in the U&O tax would be inconsistent "with the message that Philadelphia is a favorable business environment." The business community should know bad schools don't entice new companies to town either.
Certainly, comprehensive tax reform would be preferable to a piecemeal approach. But Philadelphia schools have reached the desperate hours, and the city can't keep sitting on its hands. If city officials won't raise taxes, they need to start redirecting more existing funds to education.