Council asks Hite: Why do we need a tax increase to pay Philly schools' bills now?

Superintendent William Hite (right) gestures as he sits next to Uri Monson, district chief financial officer, during a Philadelphia School District hearing in City Hall in 2017.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass looked at School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and cut to the chase: She and her colleagues are being asked to vote for a hefty tax increase to support city schools, and their constituents are wary.

“The deficit is a minute away, and people are paying bills to keep their household going,” Bass said Wednesday at a City Council hearing on the Philadelphia School District’s budget. “A large part of my district has seen very large tax increases.”

Bass and some other Council members signaled discomfort with the roughly $700 million in additional funding Mayor Kenney and school officials have asked them to come up with as part of a proposed 4.1 percent property tax hike.

The school system, which has proposed a $3.2 billion budget for next year, lacks the ability to raise its own revenue, and without an infusion of city cash, it faces a roughly $700 million deficit by 2023. But, some Council members pointed out, that deficit doesn’t show up until 2020.

“If we have two more years of not going negative, why are we dealing with this now?” Councilman Allan Domb asked.

Hite and Uri Monson, the district’s chief financial officer, have long pitched the case for fiscal stability. Year after year, the district has gone, hat in hand, to Council, asking it to fill a looming budget gap caused by a structural deficit. When Kenney pitched local control of the school system to the city, he made it clear that one key reason was to end the cycle of budget cuts and volatility.

“Fiscal stability allows us to make proper educational investments,” Monson said. “The earlier we deal with [the deficit], the less pain. If you wait too long, it becomes a much more drastic fix.”

Alfredo Praticò, a Masterman junior and president of the district’s citywide student government, echoed the district’s call for more funds now.

“The new school board and City Council and the mayor and every citizen now has the power to right a wrong,”  Praticò said. “Yes, there is a price to a good education, but the price of doing nothing is far higher.”

If Council goes for the big tax increase, Bass wanted to know, will that put Philadelphia on par with districts like Lower Merion, Cheltenham, and Radnor? “People want to see us go higher, go much higher, than we are.”

While the district has made gains, particularly in early literacy, overall just a third of Philadelphia School District students currently meet state standards in reading and about 20 percent do so in math. The graduation rate has inched up also, but sits at 67 percent of students receiving a diploma in four years.

“I don’t think that we would be receiving the pushback that we are if I was able to tell my constituents that we’re going to be on par with those neighboring districts,” Bass said.

But Philadelphia has miles to go, Hite said — the money Kenney wants will help, but the city spends just half (about $15,000 per student) of what Lower Merion (about $30,000 per student) spends. In Philadelphia, every school having a full-time counselor and nurse is a relatively new phenomenon after years of budget cuts.

“We should be taking that for granted,” Hite said.

Pennsylvania has the nation’s largest gap in spending between wealthy and poor districts, and Councilwoman Helen Gym said that in some ways, that won’t be fixed until the way the state funds schools is changed. (A lawsuit on the subject is winding its way through the courts.)

“It’s fair for us to demand more, and to drive understanding that a constant civil rights violation is going on every day, in every classroom, in our state,” Gym said.

Council had questions for school leaders on environmental hazards in schools, the subject of a recent Inquirer and Daily News investigation. Hite and Danielle Floyd, the district’s chief operating officer, said they were addressing problems.

But, Hite said, “we need to raise our expectations around what are acceptable cleanliness and maintenance conditions. We need to be more vigilant about how we do this work. We are facing a challenge that may seem too big to solve, but it’s not.”