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Have you ever seen the YouTube piece on chain reactions that involves a bunch of ping pong balls sitting atop mousetraps? A guy drops one ping pong ball into the chamber, and within a few seconds it becomes a blur of white as the ping pong balls come to life and pop up and down.
That pretty much is the picture of what is happening among Philadelphia’s political and civic leaders today. The guy who dropped the ping pong ball into their chamber was schools Superintendent William Hite.
He has asked them — the city, the state and the teachers union — each to contribute toward covering the $300 million deficit that the district is facing.
Hite and the School Reform Commission will take it up a notch this week when they approve a budget for the next school year minus the $300 million.
They are likely to follow with the mailing out of a thousand or so lay off notices to district employees who are going to lose their jobs if the money is not forthcoming. The list includes all guidance counselors, many school nurses and librarians, secretaries and virtually all support staff, except for school police. All extracurricular activities will be cut as well, including sports.
The calendar says there is enough time for all the pieces to fall into place, with each party stepping forward before June 30 to provide the money needed. There is growing pessimism it will happen.
Like the ping pong balls in the chamber, there is a lot of motion, but little forward movement. In conversations with legislators and others in Harrisburg this week, this is the picture that emerges.
The district has asked the state for an additional $120 million. If that money were to come from the basic education subsidy, the state would have to increase spending by $300 million to $400 million in order to send the $120 million to Philadelphia. And that is simply not on Gov. Corbett’s agenda.
But there is another possible source. Some have suggested that the state could restore the $100 million fund it once had to reimburse local districts for some charter school costs. Gov. Rendell had it in his budgets; Corbett cut it. Technically, this is a statewide subsidy, but Philadelphia has so many students in charter schools it would get most of the money.
So, the mechanism is there, but perhaps not the will. When Corbett introduced his budget in March, the state was counting on a $250 million surplus from this year. That money does not exist, since tax revenue — especially sales tax revenue — has not met expectations. The state also looks as if it will have $250 million less in tax revenue next year.
That creates a $500 million hole that has to be filled somehow. As a result, there is little cash on hand for extras. So, consider the $120 million from the state doubtful.
The district has asked the city for $60 million. Mayor Nutter has added $28 million to the pot in the form of increased collections on delinquent taxes.
For the rest, he proposed adding a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes sold in the city and an increase in Philadelphia’s over-the-bar drink tax from 10 percent to 15 percent.
There are three problems with Nutter’s proposal: One, it must first pass the state legislature. Two, It must then pass City Council. Three, Nutter is a lame duck with little political clout. He can make speeches. He can offer proposals. The balls jump up and down, but — again — there is little forward motion evident.
Some legislators I talked to last week thought the Nutter tax ideas were DOA. Others thought the package could pass the state Senate, but its fate in the House was uncertain.
At this moment, the House is dominated by anti-tax Republicans who have no interest in raising any taxes, anywhere, anytime. The uncertainty in the House makes other pols timid about putting a vote on the line for these proposals. One legislator predicted that if the drink and cigarette bill came up for a vote in the House, not even all of the Philadelphia delegation would support it.
There is another proposal in Council that would raise $30 million by raising a business tax paid by building tenants, which appears to have a better chance of passage. But it may face a veto because Nutter is against raising business taxes.
As to the unions, who knows? Hite last week went public with his thinking that union seniority is a thing of the past, and should go. It apparently was designed to bolster the district’s cause with Harrisburg Republicans who like to hear that kind of talk. It did not amuse legislative Democrats. They quickly called a meeting with Hite, gave him the what for over his statements, and according to one source, generally whined about being asked to carry the burden. The poor dears.
The end result of all these gyrations may be that the district will get some additional money, but nothing close to the $300 million it seeks.
What could change this gloomy scenario? A sudden and unexpected infusion of leadership from someone, somewhere. And unless it manifests itself in the next 30 days, it will a bleak September for Philadelphia’s schoolchildren.