School & District Management

Finances at Issue in Delay Of Phila. Schools Takeover

By Catherine Gewertz — December 12, 2001 3 min read
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Pennsylvania’s governor and Philadelphia’s mayor have delayed until Dec. 21 the impending state takeover of the city’s schools in an attempt to make more cordial and cooperative a shift of power that many Philadelphians already view as an unfriendly intrusion.

The announcement by Republican Gov. Mark S. Schweiker and Democratic Mayor John F. Street postponed by three weeks the surrender of Philadelphia’s troubled schools to the state. It came after a week of intense negotiations, first between the mayor’s and governor’s top deputies, and then, on the deadline day of Nov. 30, one-on-one between the leaders themselves.

With only hours left before the anticipated Dec. 1 takeover, the two men emerged and announced the extension.

“This is a monumental decision in the history of this city,” Mayor Street said. “We believe we should make every effort to resolve the ambiguity and the differences we have. We’re only going to do this once.”

Gov. Schweiker noted that there was “common ground,” but said that the two sides needed to sort out financial disagreements.

‘High-Stakes Decisions’

The delay surprised many observers, since both sides had characterized the deadline as firm. But the sticking points appeared to be significant enough to require more time for exploration.

“I don’t know if it will make the result better, but it creates the potential for a better result,” said Pedro A. Ramos, the president of the Philadelphia school board and a participant in the negotiations. “These are very high-stakes decisions, and they should be based on the best facts available.”

Both sides acknowledged that the key stumbling point was money—how much is needed to finance the district, how much the state and the city each can contribute, how much savings the district can realize through cost cutting. The school system faces a $200 million deficit this year alone in its $1.7 billion budget.

“We had questions about how they arrived at their financial numbers, and they had questions about ours,” said Steve Aaron, the governor’s spokesman. “The [governor and the mayor] felt that if we could take 21 days and use that time to do a closer analysis, it would be time well spent if it could lead to a conclusion that had the city and state partnering.”

Gov. Schweiker has proposed that the state contribute an additional $75 million a year to the city schools, but has suggested that state legislators would balk unless Philadelphia matched that sum. City officials, however, fear that raising that amount might come at the expense of other city services.

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 30 deadline, various groups of parents, labor-union members, clergy, teachers, and students staged demonstrations in opposition to the part of the state’s plan that has drawn national notice: its intent to allow private school-management firms to run 60 of the district’s worst-performing schools. (“Phila. Takeover Deadline Marked by Protests,” Dec. 5, 2001.)

That would turn the 210,000-student district into the biggest laboratory yet for school privatization.

Mr. Schweiker’s plan calls for those schools to be run in partnership with community organizations. Edison Schools Inc., the country’s largest private operator of public schools, would likely play a powerful consulting role for the new commission that is to replace the mayorally appointed school board. The New York City-based company also could manage clusters of schools if chosen to do so.

The issue of how to pay for the city’s schools has been a sore one for many years as Philadelphia, with a heavy share of poor students, struggled to find enough money to run its schools as its costs rose. Many Philadelphians are looking to the Pennsylvania legislature for what they say is the only lasting answer: a statewide tax overhaul that would give the state a greater share of school finance and substitute a higher personal-income tax for local districts’ dependence on property taxes.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Finances at Issue in Delay Of Phila. Schools Takeover

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