This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Former interim superintendent Phil Goldsmith warned members of City Council last week against taking the silver-bullet approach to fixing public schools. He also offered some of his own thoughts on what additional sources of revenue could be tapped to help the cash-poor School District.
Representing Public Citizens for Children and Youth, where he is a board member, Goldsmith testified at a hearing of the Council’s finance committee last Friday, saying the city can’t afford to keep abandoning its children on the battleground of public education. The hearing had convened to weigh Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez’s school-bailout proposal to raise the use and occupancy tax on commercial business properties, directing $30 million in funding for the schools. The committee approved the proposal, and the bill will advance to the full Council.
Goldsmith provided a written copy of his testimony (which can be read here).
While applauding Sanchez’s leadership in the school-funding crisis and supporting her bill, Goldsmith cautions that a continued over-reliance on the middle class and business community for revenue might hasten their exodus from the city.
A couple of his recommendations echo well-known proposals such as those calling to toughen up tax-collection and strengthen advocacy in Harrisburg to allow raising "sin taxes" on liquor and cigarettes.
But he also points to other funding opportunities. According to Goldsmith, Philadelphia’s 10-year tax-abatement policy — which he calls very generous when compared to other cities with similar, new real estate growth — needs changing. Goldsmith believes the city has created a class of office buildings "where its occupants are tax-protected as if they lived in the Cayman Islands."
Goldsmith also suggests that the city follow Boston and Pittsburgh’s lead by raising revenue through PILOT programs that, in lieu of taxes, collect payments from tax-exempt institutions, such as universities, for example. Doing so could easily raise $20 million, he said.
Goldsmith says public education is like a three-legged stool: There are neighborhood schools, there are charter schools, and there are magnet and special admission schools. By starving neighborhood schools and ignoring a large segment of its residents, he says the city is knocking out one of its legs.