House majority leader, Hite discuss Phila. cigarette tax

Despite a "positive" hour-long meeting between House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., city public schools beginning on time is still an open question

Whether city public schools begin on time is still an open question, even after a "positive" meeting Monday between the superintendent and a top Harrisburg leader.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) traveled to Philadelphia for the closed-door, hour-long talk with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., which he called "a goodwill mission."

Hite characterized the meeting as "very helpful" but said it did not affect the Philadelphia School District's bottom line - it has an $81 million deficit, and badly needs the money that would come from a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that lawmakers were supposed to have voted on last week.

Without the cigarette tax, layoffs and a shortened school year are possible, Hite said. He won't make the call whether classes begin on Sept. 8 as scheduled until Friday, Hite said.

Still, Hite said in an interview after the meeting, Turzai "was pretty direct in his assurances that he's going to do everything that he can within his power to get this done," though it did not seem likely that lawmakers will return before their next scheduled legislative session on Sept. 15.

Turzai requested the meeting, Hite said.

Gov. Corbett last week said he would advance city schools $265 million, but the district had already asked for and budgeted that money, which represented no new revenue or savings.

Standing outside the district's North Broad Street headquarters, Turzai would not commit to having the legislature return early to vote on the cigarette tax. He emphasized that the House had passed legislation enabling the cigarette tax in July, and criticized the Senate for tacking on extra provisions, including hotel taxes for other municipalities.

"We want to do it without the pork," Turzai said of the cigarette tax. "We want to focus on the kids."

Turzai said he had a "great discussion" with Hite and that the House "is committed to working hard" to get the city the funds it needs.

"It was a goodwill mission," Turzai said of the meeting. "It was a very positive discussion with a gentleman that I think very highly of. The superintendent has really lead by example."

In the past few years, the district has closed 32 schools and cut about 5,000 jobs as state funding levels have dropped sharply. The school system is also steadily dropping students, losing them mostly to city charter schools.

The majority leader - who noted that the district educates about 12 percent of the state's public school students but gets about 18 percent of its basic education funding - said he was impressed with Hite's fiscal stewardship of the district, and his emphasis on educational quality.

Turzai said he is eager to return to the city to visit schools when they are in session.

Hite said that Turzai's assurances "do weigh into our decisionmaking process."

The superintendent said he let Turzai, whom he noted "did not have to come here," know exactly how much the cigarette tax is needed.

"We shared," Hite said, "what our schools looked like this year."

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