This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
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WHYY education reporter Kevin McCorry sits down with NewsWorks Tonight host Dave Heller to talk about Tuesday’s mayoral forum on public education.
The Democratic candidates for Philadelphia mayor debated perhaps the most important issue in this year’s race Tuesday night: public education.
I had the pleasure of moderating what became a pretty lively event, held before a large crowd in the auditorium of G.W. Childs Elementary School in South Philadelphia.
Five of six candidates attended: State Sen. Anthony Williams, former City Councilman Jim Kenney, former Common Pleas Court Judge Nelson Diaz, former State Sen. Milton Street (brother of John Street, former mayor), and former Philadelphia Gas Works vice president of communications Doug Oliver.
Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham originally confirmed attendance, but later dropped out.
The Philadelphia School District has asked for $103 million more from the city, and the first question posed was whether the candidates would fulfill that request.
All candidates said yes, but all said they opposed Mayor Nutter’s plan to do so by raising the city property tax by 9.3 percent.
Kenney, who recently retired from City Council after 23 years, gave this rationale for opposing Nutter’s plan:
"People just went through a terrible AVI experience and they should not have to be backed up again with a 9.3 percent real estate tax increase. And I would also wait to see how successful Gov. Wolf is, so that number may be a moving target. So let’s not jump the gun."
Candidates offered an assortment of ways to generate that funding without a property tax increase.
Milton Street talked about selling city assets, such as PGW. Doug Oliver mentioned getting the city’s nonprofit universities to pony up payments in lieu of taxes. Anthony Williams referred to revenue from the city’s land bank initiative, but no one gave a detailed accounting of moves that would add up to the recurring $103 million in Nutter’s plan.
Here was Nelson Diaz’s response:
"I would then look at whether or not we could change the tax structure in which we impose more of our real estate tax burden on the commercial property, instead of the residents having to pay the same per capita tax that the commercial businesses do," he said. "The taxes are such a burden on the working class, that we have to change the wage tax."
Much of the debate in recent years in Philadelphia’s education landscape has been about the role of public charter schools. The candidates did separate themselves somewhat on the issue.
Street and Diaz were most skeptical of charters. Kenney, the teachers’ union favorite, said he’d be more supportive if Harrisburg returned the charter-reimbursement line item that helped districts defray their costs. It was eliminated by former Gov. Tom Corbett.