By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A City Council committee today approved a plan to let the mayor borrow up to $27 million so the School District of Philadelphia can pay its bills by month’s end.
But the lawmakers voiced frustration at how the school district conducts its business.
The original plan was for the city to borrow $20 million, which would then be gifted to the school district to pay bills by the end of its current fiscal year, June 30th.
But with the sale of school buildings still unresolved (see related story), schools superintendant William Hite now says he wants $27 million.
Speaking for him at today’s hearing was Sophie Bryan (at right in center of photo), chief of staff to School Reform Commission chair Bill Green:
“We are facing 800-some layoffs of teachers, class sizes of 40, so what we’re pleading with Council to consider is to increase the borrowing amount. We’ll be straight about it, we’ll be candid: we are asking for every dollar we can possibly get. We’re making this request because we’re in such a desperate situation.”
Councilmembers, though, voiced frustration over the last-minute, hat-in-hand request — mainly because the school district last year ignored Council’s plan for the sale of unused school buildings. Council had wanted all the buildings turned over the city in exchange for $50 million (another related story), but the district instead opted to try to sell the properties itself — and most of those sales are still pending.
Councilman Mark Squilla was among the lawmakers who believe that the district moved too slowly on the building sales.
“When you see there’s no sense of urgency from the school district to do something, yet they want the benefit of it, it was really disappointing,” Squilla said. “Everybody here wants to give money to schools, and help the school funding in any way possible. But it’s got to be a partnership of working together. And Council sometimes feels like the school district really doesn’t have to answer to us.”
(SEE STORY UPDATE AT BOTTOM)
Bryan admitted that the district followed it own path on the building sales:
“We get (understand) that it’s not what was talked about in November. But obviously a lot has transpired since then, and we’re very humbly asking Council to consider increasing the borrowing amount.”
Squilla sounded skeptical:
“If you don’t honor the deal from the year before, what makes us think that you’re going to work with us this year?”
In the end, though, the committee approved the borrowing at the $27-million level, and final passage by the full Council is set for June 19th.
School district officials, meantime, are hoping to go to closing next week on the sale of University City High School to Drexel University (see related story). But that deal could be jeopardized because of concerns of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell — who represents that area — about Drexel’s plans (related story). That matter would likely have to be resolved by tomorrow for the closing to proceed next Monday.
Otherwise, officials say, the city would likely need to also provide approximately $22 million more to the district by June 30th.
The district and the city are still banking on state approval of a city-specific tax on cigarettes but, even if approved, those revenues would not arrive until the next fiscal year.
After this story first appeared, SRC chairman Bill Green called KYW Newsradio to take issue with the perspective voiced by councilmembers at the hearing.
He said the issue, in his view, is not the shortfall in building sales revenues but rather “Council’s irresponsibility” for not agreeing to have the city borrow $55 million — the full amount authorized by the state legislature last year.
“It has nothing to do with building sales,” said Green, who accused Council of “leaving money on the table.”