This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On May 19, Philadelphians will hit the polls to winnow the field of City Council at-large candidates. Out of 28 declared candidates, only seven will be elected in November (including at least two from a minority party). Each party can run five candidates in the general election. The Notebook reached out to the candidates, asking their opinions on the election’s most gripping issue: education.
Where do candidates stand on the School Reform Commission’s decision to approve five new charter school applications? Whose job is it to find more money for public schools, the city’s or the District’s? Absent an agreement with the teachers’ union, do they think the SRC is right to pursue concessions through the courts? And finally, what ideas do they have for how the District can fix its financial problems?
We are posting statements from City Council candidates responding to these prompts in the order we received them. Today’s statement comes from Democrat Ed Neilson, a City Council member since 2014 and a former state representative. He is a graduate of Lincoln High School.
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
Charter schools are a primary cost driver to the School Reform Commission, yet the SRC has no control over the rate it must pay charter operators for both regular and special education students. In light of the financial instability of the state-run Philadelphia School District, I don’t believe the SRC should have approved the applications without new funding mechanisms from the Commonwealth.
The unprecedented debt that the District has accumulated since the SRC’s creation needs to be eliminated, placing significant dollars back into the system. Many office seekers talk about a fair funding formula as a savior of the school system. While that may help, it certainly will not solve the issues at hand, nor will court-imposed contract concessions. This type of bargaining needs to be abandoned.
There are more than 75 districts throughout the Commonwealth in the same predicament as Philadelphia. Many have a huge debt service from years of neglect by state officials. The debt of our School District is in the billions, and it should not be placed solely on Philadelphia residents.
Philadelphia needs to change its approach. We must begin to explore state legislation and work with other districts to make certain that we don’t continue on the path we are on. State and city officials need to work together on an agreement. It does not take a financial genius to figure out that if you skip payments to pension plans, the unfunded liability will go up. We need to pay the bills and contract obligations on time and in full.
The state legislature has introduced several solutions for change. Be it changes in special education funding reimbursements to charter schools, a statewide fair-funding formula, selling off underutilized assets to reduce debt, or the Commonwealth issuing bonds to lift the debt obligations as a community, many potential solutions did not see the light of day.
Elected officials must begin to work collaboratively with other districts throughout the Commonwealth. By investing properly in our classrooms, by both providing the resources and tools needed to provide a good education, we will cut legal costs by reducing our exposure. Philadelphia needs to be creative with our tax structure overall, so we can attract businesses that will bring good jobs while building our tax base at the same time.
The experience I bring to City Council is much different than most candidates’, and I don’t need on-the-job training. I have a record of slashing millions of dollars from budgets without reducing services or cutting jobs while working in former Gov. Rendell’s administration. As a state representative, I passed significant legislation and worked in a bipartisan manner that will continue to positively impact our children for years to come. My record shows that I was not afraid to cast hard votes and I have the right experience to get the job done.
I am not a career politician. As the newest member in City Council, I consider it an honor to serve the community. As a devoted husband, father of five, and grandfather of two, I have a stake in building a better Philadelphia, a place I have called home my entire life.