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Moment of truth in City Council

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The District’s and mayor’s calls for increased funding are running up against opposition to tax increases and concerns about spending priorities and financial mismanagement as City Council grapples with how to generate additional city funding for the schools today. The meeting turned into a marathon, continuing well into the evening, with long recesses for backroom negotiating.

This morning, it was a mob scene: City Council galleries were overflowing and hundreds more were gathered outside in the hallways and around City Hall, including many students from the city’s accelerated high schools for students at risk of dropping out.

By evening, the galleries were empty and Council members were shuttling back and forth to caucus rooms, trying to find a package that would muster nine votes. Several deals rumored over the course of the day turned out to be near-misses.

In a series of pleas, culminating with a televised speech Wednesday night, Mayor Nutter pitched the need to fund education. He called on his "fellow citizens" to attend today’s hearing.

"It’s only if we have ‘skin in the game,’ new dollars on the table, that we have any hope of possibly encouraging the Pennsylvania General Assembly to restore some funding," he said.

With programs like the District’s array of 13 accelerated schools and yellow bus service on the chopping block, even critics of new taxes in Council are supportive of finding additional funds. But so far all that is ensured is a $6 million increase in parking rates.

Council conducted hearings all morning, with public testimony as well as comments from city and District officials. They recessed before an afternoon meeting to hammer out a revenue package, but by evening, a package still had not come to a vote before the body. Council members caucused in groups of less than nine to avoid invoking the Sunshine Act. Just before 7 p.m., District officials, including Superintendent Ackerman and SRC Chair Robert Archie were invited into the private discussions for the first time all day.

A number of options for new revenue have been in play, with no clear majority for any of them:

  • The Nutter administration has proposed a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages that would generate $60 million. Some in Council have floated the idea of a smaller tax, while others say the bill would be a job-killer.
  • The Nutter administration’s second-choice option is a property tax increase of 10 percent that would generate $95 million. Some in Council have broached the idea of a smaller, 3.5 percent increase, which appeared to be gaining traction.
  • Councilman Bill Green has proposed shifting $30 million or more in city funds, without a tax increase. City Finance Director Rob Dubow said the city can only afford to transfer $5-$10 million without damaging effects on the city budget.

Some in Council are calling for changes in District spending plans before they okay any additional funding. Council members Jim Kenney and Bill Green said they want to see cuts to the District’s summer school program, which includes enrichment activities as well as services for students who need credits. Green maintained $9 million can be cut from the program.

The crowd was diverse, with large turnouts from education advocacy groups, beverage tax opponents, and students supporting the continuation of accelerated high schools. While Superintendent Ackerman maintained that some accelerated schools providers were back on board with the District at a per pupil rate that has been cut by 25 percent, sources told the Notebook that most of the alternative education providers were still negotiating over fees, numbers of students, and program details. The typical per pupil reimbursement for providers now is $10,000 per student.

Several reporters, activists, and others are tweeting updates about the hearing under the #phillyeducation and #phillycouncil hashtags. The Daily News is live-blogging. This is a developing story.