Mayor Nutter talks school cuts, soda tax

Mayor Nutter likes cherry water ice.  He skipped the dunk tank and the bounce house at Bridesburg Elementary’s Spirit Day, but he signed t-shirts, shook hands, and talked seriously about what’s at stake for the 455 kindergarten through fifth graders.

“There’s a lot of things going on in City Council, but we want to make sure you get the support you need for a good education,” the mayor told students gathered on the blacktop.

Mayor Nutter visits with students at Bridesburg Elementary on his "Vote For Students" tour of city public schools.

The Philadelphia School District, of course, is facing a $629 million budget gap, and Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman has asked for $102 million from the city to help restore things like smaller class sizes, accelerated schools, art and music programs, and nurses.

Nutter has pledged his support, but he faces a tough fight in Council, where his proposed sweetened beverage and property tax increase are not popular. Hearings on the taxes resume Thursday.

Bridesburg, on Jenks Street just off Richmond, is a small, successful neighborhood school.  More than 70 percent of its students live below the poverty line, but it’s made Adequate Yearly Progress every year that measure has been around.  

More than $200,000 will be cut from its budget next year, said Principal Jim Serpiello.

“For a small school, that’s devastating,” Serpiello said.

Devastating, as in losing 100 percent of its art and music funding.  Devastating, as in losing 58 percent of its budget for gifted and talented programs.
Devastating, as in cutting a number of paraprofessionals — supportive services assistants.

“I think that the reason that we’ve done so well is we’ve had so much support,” Serpiello told Nutter.  “We’ve lost a lot of paraprofessionals for kids who need it most.”

And unlike many schools in the district, Bridesburg is growing so quickly that students now learn in portable trailers as well as inside its building.

“We’re bursting at the seams,” said Serpiello.

Nutter, who is reading to students, hanging out at graduation picnics and touring classrooms at five Philadelphia public schools today as part of a “Vote for Students” tour, said that the public needs to understand the human impact of the cuts now on the table.

And he wants to keep people’s attention focused on the Council hearing.

“We’re going to keep fighting,” Nutter said.  “There are numerous conversations going on between and among the various members of Council.  I think Thursday is a real judgment day, a real decision day for children.  It all comes down to: do you support children, or not?”

While the mayor toured schools, opponents of the soda tax rallied in Center City.  Nutter said the beverage industry’s concerns were unfounded.  When the liquor by the drink tax passed in 1994, opponents said bars would go out of business and commerce would leave Philadelphia.  It hasn’t happened, he said.

“Soda’s not the only liquid beverage you can drink,” Nutter said.  “No one’s going to die of thirst in Philadelphia.”

(He was really on a roll.  Apparently, the sun will also rise if the soda tax passes.)

Nutter said his priorities for restoration are the same as the district’s — first, full-day kindergarten, which is saved via reshuffling federal Title I funding allocated to students that educate poor students; then transportation services; keeping class sizes small; and accelerated schools for students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out.

“This is not some exercise in what happens at 440 N. Broad Street,” the mayor said, referring to district headquarters.

The district has issued more than 3,500 pink slips, including sending layoff notices to more than 1,500 teachers.  But those are on hold for the moment as the state Supreme Court considers whether the Philadelphia Federation of Teacher’s contention that the exemption of about 200 teachers from layoffs is a violation of their contract.