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City Council looks to provide $53 million

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

Philadelphia City Council Thursday evening moved forward a package of bills, including a property tax hike, that would provide $53 million in new funding for the city’s beleaguered school system, roughly half of what the School District had hoped for.

While much about the District budget is still uncertain, both city and District officials said they hoped the funding boost would permit restoration of some of the cuts in four priority areas: bus service, accelerated schools for potential dropouts, early childhood programs, and the reduced class size initiative in early grades.

Council members, the mayor, and District officials will meet next Monday in what may be an unprecedented session to hammer out funding priorities.

“We’ll restore those things that are mutually agreed upon and then continue to work and lobby in Harrisburg for additional dollars,” said Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. “So I’m happy, because we started off with zero this morning.”

While Council did not follow his specific revenue recommendations, Mayor Michael Nutter applauded the package and said it would be useful in making the case for more state funding.

The biggest chunk of new money would come from a 3.85 percent increase in the city’s property tax, which garnered the support of 11 Council members, but still must win final approval by the body at their next Thursday session. It follows a 10 percent increase last year, none of which went to the schools. The tax hike will generate $37 million, with an additional $10 million to come from city coffers and $6 million from an increase in parking fees.

The vote followed a public hearing and marathon meeting interspersed with long recesses during which Council members caucused in private.

Nutter’s preferred revenue-generating proposal to implement a tax on sugary beverages never came to a formal vote, despite reports from Council members that for at least a brief time, a nine-member majority was prepared to vote for it. That support apparently evaporated, to the relief of the large contingent of beverage industry representatives who spent the day in Council chambers.

Not all the new money can go to restore program cuts. The first $11 million will cover some operating costs that the District has asked the city to pick up – including school-based social services and property tax assessments. The remaining $42 million is only two-thirds of what would be needed to fully address the budgeted reductions in the four priority areas.

Some Council members, including Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, expressed hope that negotiations with the District over the budget next week would permit the redirection of additional funds through reductions in areas like summer enrichment programs or the poorly attended Saturday classes at the District’s Promise Academies.

“We’re willing to roll up our sleeves and look at that so we can preserve as much as we can with alternative education and accelerated schools,” Quiñones-Sanchez said. “We may not have the same number of slots, but we want to have the same quality of slots.”

“There’s still some work to be done to save these accelerated schools,” commented Youth United for Change organizer Anand Jahi, who staffs the organization’s chapter working with out-of-school youth, which has held several protests against those cuts “We don’t know if we’ve won or we’ve lost.”

But the other wild card that could ultimately limit the restoration of cuts is a number of key assumptions in the District’s budget that may or may not come to fruition, primarily $75 million in givebacks from unions and $57 million in charter school funding support from the state. The District must also hit ambitious targets for savings from staff layoffs in central office and schools that have not all been implemented yet.

The 11 Council members voting in favor of moving forward on the property tax increase were Quiñones-Sanchez and Darrell L. Clarke, W. Wilson Goode Jr., Bill Green, William K. Greenlee, Curtis Jones Jr., Jack Kelly, James F. Kenney, Donna Reed Miller, Blondell Reynolds-Brown, and Marian B. Tasco.

“No one party got everything they wanted, including those of us who were ready to pitch – and did pitch – a 5 percent increase … and failed,” said Reynolds-Brown. “So we ended up with a compromise.”

Reynolds-Brown said she would also be part of next week’s meeting with the District to examine and settle on spending priorities. That session is one tangible outcome of recent calls for heightened fiscal accountability at the District.

“In the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve never experienced an instance where the Council members have sat with the members of the school board to be real clear about how we want to see those dollars spent,” she said.

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