A plan to fund Philly schools and then some - starting this budget season | Opinion

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Assistant Superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia Dr. Eric Becoats talks to third grader Anthony Rodriguez, 8, during a tour of some of the classes before the School Progress Report awards ceremony at the Potter-Thomas Elementary School on January 29, 2018.

Philadelphia made history in 2017 by ending the 16-year state control of its public schools. Now, we must come together yet again to create the quality schools our children deserve.

The question is: How do those schools get the funding they need? The answer will determine the future of our schools and our neighborhoods — and reveal whom our city government prioritizes: corporations and the wealthy, or the rest of us.

In the coming months, there will be a discussion about increasing property taxes while once again rolling back taxes on businesses. But Philadelphia has already seen three property-tax increases in the last seven years, and President Trump’s tax bill just gave corporations billions of dollars. We say: Enough!

Increased property taxes will fall heavily on low-income people and the fixed-income elderly, and contribute to the continued displacement of black, brown, and working-class Philadelphians due to increasing housing costs. There is plenty of money in our city and our country — but instead of investing in our children, money is being hoarded by the top 1 percent.

Our City Our Schools has put together a plan to fund our schools that would raise more than $200 million per year, protect low- and moderate-income Philadelphians and small businesses, and support economic prosperity. The mayor and City Council can act on our plan in this budget season. This plan both solves the $100 million gap that hits our schools this year and creates some surplus so we can begin to envision the schools our kids deserve.

Here are our main proposals:

  • Abolish the 10-year tax abatement program for properties assessed at $500,000 or above.
  • Negotiate with major tax-exempt institutions — like universities and nonprofits that hold property valued at more than $15 million — to pay 50 percent of what they would if they were fully taxed. (They currently pay zero percent.)
  • Postpone the proposed cuts to the Business Income and Receipts Tax (BIRT) scheduled over the next five years.
  • Postpone the proposed cuts in the wage tax scheduled over the next five years and help working people by implementing a low-wage tax credit program.
  • Increase the Use and Occupancy Tax by raising the overall rate to 1.5 percent while raising the exemption amount to shield small businesses.

We also know that the School District has to be careful with any funds we raise. Two cost-cutting measures we propose are:

  • Undertake an independent forensic, managerial, and performance audit to ensure every School District program is cost-effective.
  • Fund a feasibility study on a public bank that could address the School District’s more than $300 million in annual debt service payments.

The Chamber of Commerce will say that we need continued business tax breaks, but we all know its plan does not work. Over the last 30 years, we’ve cut the city wage tax by 22 percent, cut the city gross receipts tax 64 percent, and given massive state and federal corporate tax breaks. Yet poverty levels have increased in Philly and disproportionately impacted black and brown communities. We’ve tested their “trickle-down” economics, and the lesson is simple: Tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy do not lead to greater investment in our neighborhoods, do not create jobs in our communities, and do not fund our schools.

By enacting the Our City Our Schools funding proposal, the mayor and Council will not only address the looming budget deficit, but also create a surplus so we can imagine the schools our children deserve: smaller class sizes; healthy and safe schools buildings; fully funded programs for arts and sports; fully-staffed school counselors, librarians, and nurses.

Our city is at a crossroads. We are seeing a surge of people with moderate means moving in, yet our schools are still woefully underfunded. Our city’s number-one priority must be keeping this city affordable for longtime residents while providing the highest quality education in the country. In the face of a federal administration hellbent on destroying our social services, it’s up to the mayor and Council to protect small businesses, Philadelphia’s schoolchildren, and the majority of Philadelphians.

Every day, educators, students, and parents do amazing work in our schools under inhumane conditions. Now is the moment for all of our institutions to step up to contribute to our schools. We call on Mayor Kenney and Council to demand that our city’s wealthy pay what they owe our students by creating a budget that funds the schools our children deserve.

Kendra Brooks is a leader with Parents United for Public Education and the Our City Our Schools coalition, and most recently served on the mayor’s nominating committee for the new Board of Education.  Shakeda Gaines is the president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the mother of four children in the Philadelphia schools.