Philly Council's Tough Choice on Schools: To Raise Your Taxes or Not

Council needs to decide whether to raise property taxes to help the district navigate troubling financial times, or find another way to usher schools through the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Council President Darrell Clarke opened up the budget hearing for the Philadelphia School District's 2020-2021 funding by going right to the heart of the question.

"This is a difficult time for everyone. The ability to stick our hands in the taxpayers' pocket is not the same this time," Clarke said Wednesday morning.

He is referring to the proposal by Mayor Jim Kenney to raise property taxes to help pay for the city school district's expected revenue losses in the next fiscal year.

A $49 million increase in property taxes for the new budget year starting July 1 would still mean a very large deficit for the district over the next five years -- $800 million.

But the new tax money would at least hold steady the funding anticipated prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Council members seemed undecided Wednesday in how to protect schools from cutting programs, teachers and services. A vote on the new budget will take place later in June.

While grappling with the school district's problems, the City of Philadelphia itself faces a projected $650 million budget deficit. In addition to tax increases to real estate, parking and non-resident workers, Kenney is expected to lay off at least 400 city employees and cut many departments' spending.

"Austerity is a choice," Councilwoman Helen Gym said. "We are not helpless collateral damage to all this. We are decision makers."

She added that she didn't want to see the district plunged back into the fiscal blackhole of 2013. That's when a combination of slow recovery from the Great Recession and a Republican governor in Pennsylvania led to a massive decrease in money for the district.

Council recently weighed a much bigger increase in taxes two years ago when Kenney in 2018 asked for nearly $900 million in new money to help close the district's still-ongoing deficit issues.

That was in a much better economy. Now, in the midst of a crisis that has left more than 30 million Americans without jobs and mired in uncertainty about when the economy will begin turning around, asking city residents to pay more is difficult, some Council members said.

Days before the hearing, first-year Councilman Isaiah Thomas and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart put out separate plans that would close the city's deficit without raising new taxes.

With the start of Council budget hearings this week, the debate over taxes kicks into high gear. It remains unclear how Council will feel before voting on a new budget next month.

Most lawmakers tipped their hands, while some like Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. mined school officials, including Superintendent William Hite, for insight into how school will be for children come September.

Jones asked Hite to explain "how to build the George Jetson new-school environment" in adapting to public education amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Hite provided few details about what public education will look like in September. He said the three options are: full school reopenings, a mix of virtual learning and partial reopenings, or a continuation of the virtual learning in which all students are currently engaged.

"Will student temperature checks done by an individual? Will we have a station (where temperature checks occur)? Will we scan students in?" Hite said to Council. "We’re looking at multiple ways to do that."

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