Inquirer Editorial: What a concept: Philadelphia public school students are getting new books this year

Inquirer editorial: Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. deserves credit for maintaining a steady hand while trying to navigate the school district's financial challenges.

It says a lot about the state of the Philadelphia School District that the big news on opening day is that its 130,000 students will actually have new textbooks.

But given the perpetual financial crisis that the city's public schools have been mired in the last few years, just buying books is a positive development worth celebrating.

After all, this is a school district that has gone several years without librarians, school nurses, guidance counselors, or assistant principals in many of its schools. Never mind the crumbling buildings and routine violence that has undermined learning for far too many students.

The School District has lurched from one financial crisis to the next in recent years. That ripple effect has been an emotional roller coaster that has wreaked havoc on parents, students, teachers, and administrators.

Credit Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. for maintaining a steady hand while trying to navigate the financial challenges. Hite's calm and sensible leadership stands in stark contrast to the melodrama that too often unfolded under his predecessor, the late Arlene Ackerman.

State and city lawmakers have been working to develop a more stable funding stream for the schools. A state budget deal reached this summer provided Philadelphia schools $50 million in new money. That funding enabled the district to spend the $35 million on new math and reading books.

In addition to raising the state cigarette tax by a dollar, the legislature also extended the city's $2-a-pack cigarette tax, which guarantees the district $58 million annually. But as Hite has pointed out, that's not enough to fix a structural deficit that will lead to future fiscal problems unless it is addressed.

There are other issues that make the district's fiscal future hazy. Philadelphia's public school teachers have not had a new contract for three years. The district is facing $4 billion in deferred maintenance to many of its aging buildings. And rising pension and health costs continue to eat up a growing portion of the school budget, thus taking away money for instruction.

That is why it is incumbent on Superintendent Hite and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to get back to the negotiation table and reach a fair but reasonable contract that does not send the school district back into the red.

Such a deal should include getting teachers to pay for a portion of their health insurance costs. As it stands, the teachers do not contribute a penny toward their health insurance premiums. Sadly, such gold-plated health coverage deals are no longer a viable option for most private-sector workers.

But the two sides can't reach a contract until they resume negotiations. Hite said the district proposed "meaningful wage increases," but union president Jerry Jordan disputed the pay offer. It's time to stop the gamesmanship and end the impasse.

A contract with the district's principals also must be reached. A tentative agreement included some raises, a 3 percent bonus, and no increases in health-care costs. That reasonable deal was rejected, however, so that tough assignment also remains on Hite's to-do list.

Go ahead and celebrate new books, but much more must be accomplished.