The mayor said Thursday that the city will borrow $50 million to ensure that schools open on time next month, even as City Council members who oppose the idea countered that he cannot seek the loan without their approval.
Mayor Michael Nutter's announcement came the day before a fiscal deadline set by the head of the struggling district, who asked for a commitment of $50 million from city or state officials by Friday so that schools could have sufficient staffing on Sept. 9.
Schoolchildren are not responsible for the funding problems, Nutter said, and “they should not suffer as we try to resolve it. They should not be pawns in a political chess match of leverage and strategy.”
Gov. Tom Corbett echoed Nutter's sentiment. He asked the council to “authorize the $50 million in short-term borrowing as envisioned in the state's funding package.”
Superintendent William Hite issued a statement saying the mayor's monetary pledge “will enable us to provide many crucial school functions and restore critical staff positions,” as well as keep class sizes down.
But shortly after the mayor's news conference, City Council members expressed strong opposition to the borrowing plan. Earlier this week, they sent Hite their own proposal to generate the needed funds through the sale of surplus school buildings.
Hite did not mention that idea in his statement Thursday. District officials have said that such real estate transactions are already included in their five-year financial plan, and that council's proposal would not represent new revenue.
Council President Darrell Clarke said members believe the property is worth about $200 million, far above what the district has budgeted. And he maintained that Nutter can't borrow money without council approval.
But Hite, who said previously that he didn't care where the emergency funds came from, appeared to be reassured by the mayor's words.
He's expected to hire back about 1,000 workers, from assistant principals to lunchroom aides; they are among 3,800 employees laid off this summer to close a $304 million deficit.
Yet even their rehiring is fraught with controversy. Later Thursday, Hite planned to ask the state-run School Reform Commission, which oversees the district, to allow him to bypass seniority in hiring back staff. Such flexibility will allow employees to return to the buildings where they worked, he said.
Teachers union president Jerry Jordan contends such a move would violate their contract, and he said the group is looking at all legal options. Getting rid of seniority will lead to patronage hires, he warned.
Meanwhile, some education advocates say even the $50 million infusion is not enough. On Monday, a group of concerned clergy asked parents to consider keeping their children out of school unless the district gets more funding.
Hite has urged City Council to direct revenue from the city's sales tax to the schools, but Clarke wants some of that money for the underfunded city pension system.