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Which mayoral candidate would best improve city schools?

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

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Philadelphia’s future depends in large part on developing a public school system that can serve the city’s large economically disadvantaged population while attracting middle-class families that will expand its tax base.

So, for good reason, education has been the forefront issue in this year’s mayor’s race.

This year’s candidates for the Democratic primary are: State Sen. Anthony Williams, former City Councilman Jim Kenney, former city District Attorney Lynne Abraham, former Common Pleas Court Judge Nelson Diaz, former state senator and convicted tax evader Milton Street, and former Philadelphia Gas Works executive Doug Oliver.

Each has spoken voluminously about what he or she can do to improve the city’s schools.

But there’s often a chasm between what candidates say on the campaign trail and the realities of what a mayor can accomplish.

There are a few concrete things to zero in on.

A mayor can propose ways to find new city revenue for schools.

This can be either through tax increases, better collection of existing taxes, savings within city departments or reductions to services.

Mayor Nutter has a plan to raise more education funding by increasing city property taxes by 9.4 percent.

This would generate $105 million in stable, recurring revenue for city schools. Philadelphia School District leaders are very enthusiastic about the prospect of this passing — saying that this, in combination with Gov. Wolf’s budget proposals would help them return the classroom resources that have been stripped in recent years.

At a mayor’s forum that I moderated recently at Childs Elementary in South Philly, I asked the candidates whether they supported that plan.

Each gave a resounding "no."

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Abraham was not in attendance, but she, too, does not support the tax hike.

So what are the candidates proposing?

Nothing that nears the sort of silver-bullet cash influx that would come with Nutter’s plan.

Each candidate has a hodge-podge of measures to come up with the $103 million in additional recurring funding for the School District. In many cases, they rely heavily on the idea that more money can be found by creating a more efficient government that’s more aggressive about collecting existing taxes.

If elected, Kenney expects to find $50 million in savings in his first year that would come by making cuts to existing city agencies and reforming the process by which the city contracts with vendors.

Williams says he’d ask City Council to explore giving a greater share of property tax revenue to schools. He is also banking on a $50 million infusion from the Philadelphia School Partnership — the sort of general, deficit-reducing grant that runs in direct opposition to PSP’s mission. It typically gives money for specific programs or to help certain schools expand.

Diaz has stressed the idea that the city should place more of a tax burden on commercial property — an idea that would require amending the state constitution.

He’d also keep bars open 24 hours in a designated zone in Center City. Doug Oliver, too, has talked about raising education dollars by keeping bars open later. This idea, too, would require the cooperation of the state legislature.

Advocating for his property tax plan, Nutter has called these ideas "bogus."

On Tuesday, Nutter deployed his finance director, Rob Dubow, to explain in detail the shortcomings of each pitch. In short, the Nutter camp says the ideas are too little, too late, too reliant on Harrisburg, or too crippling to the rest of the city budget.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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