Council finds money for schools, passes budget

Philadelphia City Council passed the city’s operating budget Thursday, at the final meeting before the 12-week summer recess, and also approved a separate bill to immediately borrow the $27 million the School District of Philadelphia needs to finish out the fiscal year.

The $4.5 billion budget includes proceeds from the sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works, but that deal remains in doubt. Council has refused to publicly consider the proposed sale since Mayor Nutter announced earlier this year that UIL Holdings, of Connecticut, had offered $1.86 billion for the city-owned utility.

The gas workers union staged a rally Thursday morning at City Hall, where Former Mayor John F. Street spoke to a crowd of about 100, leading chants of “just say no,” to the sale of PGW. The utility, after years of mismanagement, has turned into a profitable operation in recent years.

“It’s not broke. Why should we try to fix it?” Street said.

UIL has the choice to opt out of the deal on July 15, and the agreement to buy PGW automatically terminates if Council takes no action before the end of the year. That sets up the fall as the do-or-die time for the sale.

In the fall, Council also is likely to still be grappling with the school district’s deficit. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a bill Thursday that would authorize the city to borrow another $30 million for the schools. That bill can’t be considered until Council returns in September

By then, city leaders should know whether the state plans any new funding for Philadelphia schools and whether the city can enact a $2-a-pack cigarette tax for the schools. The district needs at least another $96 million from various sources to maintain a status quo that has been the result of years of painful cuts.

Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. called the new borrowing bill “gigantic.”

"It closes the gap for us,” he said. “It closes the gap pretty significantly."

He praised Council President Darrell L. Clarke and his colleagues for leaving "no money on the table" for the 200,000-plus city children in public and charter schools.

Council also passed bills Thursday to approve a bike share program in the city, enact zoning changes necessary for Drexel University’s huge development at the former University City High School, and set a living wage standard for city subcontractors.

Councilman James F. Kenney’s bill to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana also passed, by a 13-3 vote, with all three Republicans on Council – Brian J. O’Neill, Dennis O’Brien and David Oh – voting against.

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