Their silence was deafening. Mayor Nutter invited the 17 City Council members to stand with him Wednesday when he announced a plan to give Philadelphia's destitute public schools more tax money. But none of them spoke up for the proposal.
In fact, Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, who chairs the Education Committee, later made a remark that suggested she's more concerned about neighborhood bars than public schools. Nutter's plan would raise the city's cigarette tax to $2 a pack and its by-the-drink tax on alcoholic beverages from 10 percent to 15 percent. Blackwell said she would support that only if neighborhood bars are exempted.
Really? Her remark, and Council President Darrell L. Clarke's warning that Nutter's proposal isn't assured of getting the nine Council votes needed for passage, are not only disappointing, but also reveal just how little these local political leaders understand their counterparts in Harrisburg. The legislature isn't about to give Philadelphia schools more money if the city's own Council members don't seem to see the urgency.
That, too, is disappointing. Philadelphia isn't the only district suffering. State allocations over the past two years have left school districts with less money, causing many to increase class sizes and shut down academic programs. Gov. Corbett's cuts are even harder to swallow when you consider that Pennsylvania contributes only 36 percent of the funding for the state's public schools. The average among the states is 48 percent.
Philadelphia schools are staring at a $304 million deficit in the next fiscal year. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has proposed closing the gap with a combination of pay and benefits concessions by teachers and other district employees, an additional $120 million from the state, and $60 million from the city. Nutter's plan would actually provide $95 million, including revenue to be collected by cracking down on tax delinquents.
It's good to see the mayor propose kicking in more than Hite requested. That sends the right message to Harrisburg. And the additional cash will likely be needed, because the state and employee concessions are unlikely to produce what Hite has asked for.
Given that reality, Nutter and Council also should consider shifting their spending priorities. That $95 million represents only 2.5 percent of Nutter's proposed $3.7 billion budget for 2014. If you believe the city's economic future depends on having a well-educated workforce, shouldn't the budget pie give schools a bigger slice?
Hite, in his first year as superintendent, is working hard to be a better steward of taxpayers' money. He promises to produce better results, but he must have enough fiscal support to succeed.