City Council to School District: Go Away Already

Council's school budget hearings were a farce, but the real damage to Philadelphia schools is being done by the State.

Students have a modest request of City Council. | Photo  courtesy of Philadelphia City Council. Produced and Edited by Michael Falconi and Jenae Brown.

Students have a modest request of City Council. | Photo courtesy of Philadelphia City Council. Produced and Edited by Michael Falconi and Jenae Brown.

There are few City Hall scenes more dispiriting than the display of mutual contempt that unfolds each year when the School District of Philadelphia comes to City Council begging for money.

This year’s spite of spring featured:

  1. Council lamentations that the district is an insatiable monster that will not rest until it has devoured the life savings of every tax-paying Philadelphian. Example: “So you want all of the money, all of the time, basically.” — Council President Darrell Clarke.
  2. Council’s bizarre fixations on irrelevant minutiae. Example: “Cursive writing should be mandatory.” — Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.
  3. Council’s disturbing disinterest in the root causes of the district’s ongoing financial distress.
  4. Complaint after complaint about the district’s lack of transparency and failure to answer some pretty basic questions.

So, pretty much the usual.

Also par for the course: It’s May 29th, one month before Council adjourns for the summer, and there is still no semblance of a plan to meet the district’s request for new funds next year. Yes, Council will probably come up with something. But it won’t be the stable property tax hike that Mayor Michael Nutter has asked for; it’ll likely be well short of the district’s request, and it’ll be done at the very last moment possible. Fast, cheap and out of control — that’s Council’s motto when it comes to dealing with city schools.

And yet, despite the annual histrionics, there is no doubt that City Hall — and that includes Council — has done more than its part to fund the school district in recent years. Indeed, a Citified analysis of district budget data dating back to 2002 shows that local funding of the district is at a peak.

As of this fiscal year, local revenue accounts for 41 percent of the district’s budget, up from 29 percent as recently as 2011. Put another way: Philadelphia is pouring $376 million more into the district right now than it did in 2011. And that’s before the district’s $105 million request for next year is added to the tab.

That’s a staggering increase in the local funding burden over a very short period of time. And it’s a burden the city has been coerced into taking on through a combination of 1) rapid federal disinvestment as the stimulus ended and 2) the Tom Corbett funding cuts, followed by a few years of all-too-modest state funding increases.

Take a look at the chart below, and focus on the red line. That — right there — is the reason for Council’s inchoate rage.

There’s an interesting disconnect between that red line and the rhetoric out of City Council in recent years. That trend line suggests the city is backing its schools to the max, just as Mayor Nutter has wanted. Council, though, has resisted and resisted. They’ve complained, they’ve delayed, they’ve come up with funding stopgaps and gimmicks and last-minute legislative Hail Marys and other assorted nonsense, all of which has created a very powerful impression that Council doesn’t give a damn about city schools. And yet — look at that trend line! It’s been messy, but Council has delivered the cash (unreliable, non-recurring cash in many cases, but cash nonetheless).

Will they do it again this year?

Council members say Mayor Nutter’s proposed 9.3 percent property tax hike — which would create a stable, growing revenue source for city schools — has no chance of passing, and there’s no reason to doubt them. School funding fatigue has reached an acute stage. There’ve already been two property tax hikes. The use and occupancy tax. The cigarette tax. The sales tax. The borrowing. So, Council wonders, what big academic achievements and stellar schools has the district gotten in return for all that investment?

That’s what Council wonders, but it really should know better. The money the city is sinking into the district isn’t an investment. “Investment” implies cash used to build something new. This is a bailout — a bailout of a state that runs the schools, but doesn’t want to pay for them. The huge infusion of local cash in recent years is just permitting the district to tread water. At best.

Yes, the district’s overall budget has grown in recent years, but not as fast as fixed costs like teacher benefits, which are up 36 percent since 2011. The district can’t do a thing about teacher pensions — those are managed by the state — but it has gone to extreme lengths to reduce spending on teacher health care, albeit without success so far (and without a whit of support from Council members, by the way).

That $376 million leap in local funding between 2011 and 2015 really has devoured pretty much every spare public dollar, making it near impossible to invest in improvements to city services, in long-term reduction of the pension obligation, in strategic tax relief or any other civic priority.

I think that’s OK. Righting the schools is probably the single best thing Philadelphia can do to ensure a healthy, long-term future for itself. And funding of schools should go up every year. This is the way the world works: Costs increase, and if the tax base doesn’t grow, then taxes increase to meet those rising costs. Council needs to come to grips with that reality, particularly when so many of the funding fixes it’s come up with for the schools have been short-term measures or ones, like the cigarette tax, that are likely to decline in value over time. Right now, when district officials show up in Council, the reaction is basically: “You guys? Again.” Yes. Again. And again and again. Unless and until the district gets the power to levy taxes itself, the district has to go to Council and Harrisburg when it needs revenue. That’s the way this flawed system is built.

Council might feel better about the whole situation if it focused on the schools for more than two days of budget hearings. Here, likely new at-large Councilwoman Helen Gym will surely help. Gym wants to get the district the resources it needs, but unlike most of Council, she seems to realize that holding the district accountable will actually take, you know, work. “If council is serious about accountability it should hold hearings and conduct reports. It has subpoena power. It has the ability to compel testimony,” Gym says. And when should hearings begin? “September.”

District officials won’t like that at all. They treat Council budget season as an agonizing but short-lived ordeal. And really, what with the cursive fixation, who can blame them? But the district would be far better off if it at least tried to treat Council as a partner, rather than a rich yokel of an uncle to be tolerated only as long as it takes to shake loose some cash.

But all this risks overlooking the real problem. Council’s anger at the district is misdirected. It’s the state that has screwed city taxpayers, not the Bill Hite-run school district.

Now, some will say that the city should have been paying more to fund its own schools all along. Indeed, by the standards of other big cities, and by those of other Pennsylvania school districts, Philadelphia has paid a relatively small share of the local schools budget. But that dynamic has changed dramatically in recent years: the city has increased its funding of schools by 45 percent in just four years, all for a district controlled by Harrisburg.

Something’s got to give.

With Gov. Tom Wolf now in office, there’s a chance something will. He wants to dramatically increase school funding statewide. He wants a new state funding formula, which could work to Philadelphia’s advantage. He wants to restore a scrapped rebate to districts to compensate them for revenue losses absorbed when charter schools expand, which would definitely work to Philadelphia’s advantage.

The mood on City Council seems to be: Let’s wait and see what Wolf gets first. Left in the lurch, as always? The School District of Philadelphia and its 142,000 students.