Patrick Kerkstra: Ineffective Philly leaders

Rowers get a nice view of the Philadelphia skyline during their races on a muggy Wednesday afternoon on the Cooper River for the US Rowing Club National Championship July 11 2012. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)

Mayor Nutter dropped the mic.

It wasn't an unfortunate emcee accident. No, this was a social-media mic drop, a hashtag-punctuated thumping of the chest on Twitter, celebrating his own record in providing for Philadelphia's public schools.

"Bottom line - I put up $155 million in new City ed funding last 3yrs, State cut funding $140M - that's my record, indisputable, #dropthemic," wrote the mayor.

The timing was peculiar. City schools are slated to open in 10 days, and the budget is still $148 million short of the far-from-adequate baseline Superintendent William Hite is pleading for.

There's also this: Nutter didn't put up $155 million. City taxpayers did.

Nutter backed off a bit, tweeting later that the work is not done. But it was a telling comment, and one that reflects the mood of a lot of local elected officials who believe they've done all they can on schools and now it's up to the state.

Which would be fine, if Harrisburg were not in the grip of conservative Republicans who seem hostile to Philadelphia, teachers' unions, and, increasingly, to the very idea of traditional public education.

So it's worth asking what the city itself could have done for its schools.

First, it would help if Philadelphia weren't so lonely in petitioning Harrisburg. There are other big, struggling, impoverished districts in Pennsylvania. Local suburban counties also have a huge stake in the city's well-being, and even affluent towns are buckling under the weight of high school property taxes.

Why isn't the city working with these natural allies in its quest for increased state support?

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald says the mayor "will be in discussion with leaders around the state to address the issue of a student funding formula for the school districts in the next state budget."

That's great, but where was that effort before?

Second, why did the mayor release a budget in March that hyped the now-discarded promise of no new taxes? It was inevitable that the city would have to find cash for the schools, and yet Nutter proposed a spending plan with no meaningful municipal cuts and no new taxes.

McDonald says the schools were left out of budget planning because the district did not yet know how much it needed and "it would have been inappropriate to simply plug in a number."

But even a rough early estimate would have given Nutter and City Council the chance to come up with a coherent plan, instead of the pell-mell package presented to Harrisburg mere weeks before the General Assembly's summer recess.

And don't forget that Council and Nutter could have funded the city's share of the schools deficit without asking Harrisburg for a thing. True, it would have meant cutting the city budget, or raising city taxes, and those have political costs. But so does a school system in chaos.

Instead, the mayor and Council opted for a cigarette tax that required state approval, and then acted shocked that Harrisburg went in another direction.

"There's not a person sitting at this table who was in negotiation on what came out of the legislative process," Nutter told the Public School Notebook this month. "None of us were in a room anywhere with anyone."

That's the definition of political impotence, and it's a reflection not just of Nutter's failure to find allies, but of the weakness of the city's delegation in Harrisburg.

Philadelphia's liberal cohort of senators and representatives has been marginalized by Republican domination of the Capitol and governor's mansion. Which means the city needs to limit its requests of Harrisburg, and demonstrate near political unanimity when it asks for anything.

"The importance of Philadelphia being united in its ask of Harrisburg in this day and age is crucial for any legislative success," said State Rep. Cherelle Parker, chair of the city's House delegation.

That's sound advice. But Philadelphia's delegation could try gaining leverage another way: compromise.

Gov. Corbett had three budget-season priorities: privatize the state-run liquor system, pass a transportation funding bill, and stabilize the state pension fund. He failed on all three. What if city Democrats had helped him in exchange for more support for city schools?

Parker said the city's delegation "extended an olive branch" to Corbett on transportation funding, so long as it included sufficient cash for mass transit.

What if the olive branch had included help on liquor stores and pensions, too? Granted, both plans are loathed by most Democrats, and unions would be livid. But here's the point: There are alternatives that could help city schools. Philadelphia's leaders have just opted not to take them.

 


Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist and former Inquirer staff writer. He can be reached at Patrick@PatrickKerkstra.com or on Twitter @pkerkstra.