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The decision of the School Reform Commission last week to delay passing a new budget for a month was treated as big news in the media, mostly because it came as a surprise.
It was an elegant move that solved the puzzle of differing budget expiration dates.
The district runs on Daylight Savings Time while the city and state government work on Standard Time.
The district must have its budget passed and in place by May 30; the state and city have a June 30 deadline to pass their budgets.
But, since the size and shape of the district’s budget depends on actions by the state and city when it comes to money, the district faced the prospect of having to pass a budget with a $231 million hole in it, putting into motion a deep round of layoffs and cuts.
Superintendent William Hite thought those actions would set off a round of pain and disruption and was unwilling to put the district through it if there were a chance it would get the money it needs between now and June 30.
Technically, the move is in violation of the City Charter. In fact, everyone supported the delay. No one has stepped forward to say: “We insist you pass the budget now, cut spending and begin making another thousand-plus layoffs.”
Still, though the district reset the clock, it did not solve its underlying problem, which is a lack of money to operate at a minimal level in the next school year.
For that, Hite must depend on the politicians in Harrisburg and City Hall.
The poor guy.
Ever since he waded into the big muddy in 2012, Hite has been making the case that the district needs adequate—albeit barely adequate—money to fulfill its core mission, which is the education of children. (Just in case you forgot.)
Instead of helping, the political class has done a Psalm 135 on Hite. You know, “They have ears, but they hear not….”
Actually, it is not a case of them being hearing impaired; it is more a case of not giving a rat’s ass about the district, especially in Harrisburg. This is a situation overflowing with irony because the state has control of and oversees operation of the district through the SRC, which has a majority of state appointees.
In fact, the state took over the district in 2003 mostly because it felt that it was not capable of running itself, not with the profligate and irritating Superintendent David Hornbeck in charge.
Last year, the state gave the district a one-time infusion of $45 million and some pocket change. The legislature also passed a law that extended the life of a one-cent add-on to the sales tax levied in the city, which was due to expire this year. Instead, it made that add-on permanent and allocated the proceeds to the district.
This move requires the approval of City Council, which hasn’t moved because the enigmatic Darrell Clarke wanted to split the money between the district and the city’s pension fund. Clarke has since backed off that a bit and the necessary authorization is making its way through Council.
Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, the attitude seems to be: If you want to tax yourselves, please be our guest. But, don’t come to us for the money. We’re too busy dealing with bigger things, such as being stalemated on pension reform and liquor sales and a half-dozen other issues.
It’s hard for people in the city to accept that state government wants nothing to do with providing additional support to the district it is running. But, just to reiterate, what you have to grasp about members of the ruling party in Harrisburg is: They… Do… Not… Care.
The Republicans are in control of the governor’s office, the state House and the Senate. Their no-new-taxes pledge has backed them into a corner, especially since state tax collections are running far, far behind estimates. The talk is of a $1 billion deficit.
Right now, the governor and legislature look like a guy standing on railroad tracks, mesmerized by the approach of an oncoming locomotive. You’re tempted to close your eyes because you know what will happen when the engine—economic reality— collides with the strong sense of denial prevalent in the capital.
Naturally, there are high-level meetings taking place and there are a few adults in the room, but the anti-tax sentiment is so strong some Republican legislators are warning their local school districts not to bank on any increase in state aid, not even the small amount included in Gov. Corbett’s budget proposal.
Hite and Mayor Nutter want the legislature to pass a bill that, once again, would give the city the right to tax itself, this time in the form of a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes sold in Philadelphia.
The $90-plus million this would raise, plus $120-million plus from the sales tax extension, would enable the district to come close to its bare-minimum need of $216 million.
To get this done, though, means that Hite has to rely on the prowess of the Philadelphia delegation in Harrisburg, which—with the notable exception of Rep. John Taylor—is all Democrat all the time.
The poor guy.
The word on the street is that Republicans in Harrisburg may be willing to pass the tax, but only if the entire delegation stands behind it and only if they are willing to return the favor by providing votes on some issue near and dear to the hearts of the GOP.
This idea terrifies the Democrats because it means it might have to end up supporting a bill which will anger their constituents. By that, I do not mean the voters, I mean the unions. Privatize liquor sales? That is taboo. The LCB clerk’s union is against it.
Reform public pensions? How can we do that? The state employee and the teachers unions are against it.
Obviously, we are not dealing with profiles in courage here. And they are going to carry the ball across the goal line? God help us.
So, the SRC bought time when it extended its budget deadline for a month. But did that do anything to alter the fundamental problem, which is lack of leadership among the Democrats and a lack of caring among the Republicans? I fear not.
Tune in again June 30.