FIXING PHILLY’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS: THE MONEY IS THERE IF YOU LOOK FOR IT
Written by Charles Ellison on January 28, 2020
As it might seem that with each passing month, nowadays, there is some random Philadelphia public school building forced to close from the sudden appearance of toxins like lead, asbestos or an unknown mold. We don’t know how many more will close given the 70 year average age of a public school building. We also don’t know how severe or widespread the public health consequences for school children will be because city officials refuse to mass screen that part. The latter aspect of this debacle is undoubtedly the weirdest and most saddening.
We do know that the conversation always circles back to money: how much the city and the school district claim they don’t have to fix the issue. We’ve postulated on why that is, but with lawmakers back in session, it’s that time to revisit where potential monies are stashed away and immediate remedies that could take place. The city reflexively cries broke when parents and students cry foul about hazardous, unsafe conditions. Yet, there are pockets of money in various budgets we’re aware of that prompt us to ask: why not use that?
Let’s try. At the moment, Philly must act on what’s happening now – despite the fact it’s been the same issue as long as anyone who’s either attended Philly public schools or been a parent to a Philly public school student knows. It then has no luxury to wait on the $5 billion estimated to repair all public school buildings. But it could be proactive and show leadership by addressing the $170 million price tag in immediate safety and health-related remediation local and state lawmakers, along with educators, have all agreed on.
Since Philly governance is famous for cost overruns, bloated contracts and whatever other unpredictable factor, let’s round that figure up to $200 million for safe measure.
City and state officials continue to go back and forth in an endless fiscal tug-of-war on who should pay what first, how that’s matched and the amounts from either City Hall or Harrisburg. The Commonwealth snaps back at city and Philly-area legislator demands to put down state money, figuring that “you wanted this district so bad, so sort it out yourself.” While the Commonwealth makes a point, that doesn’t justify imposing a penny pinch on it’s largest school district: Philadelphia public school students (at about 200,000) account for nearly 12 percent of all Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million K-12 public school students. Letting a district that size fail means the state fails: 12 percent of the state’s $300 million “rainy day fund” translates into $36 million that could find its way to Philly schools.
Still, rather than force parents and endangered students watch the political fights unfold in headlines, City Hall could tap into its own sources of funding for the immediate fixes while the debate is still hot. Since 2016, the Kenney administration has asked voters to approve more than $720 million in borrowing over four election cycles – and voters have obliged each time. These ballot requests were for capital improvements and municipal building upgrades: $184 million in 2016, $172 million in 2017, $181 million in 2018 and $185 million in 2019. With the school district officially in city hands, aren’t school buildings considered “municipal facilities?” And if the city is bold enough to ask residents for nearly a billion dollars in loans over four years, what’s stopping them from asking voters for $200 million … “for the kids?”
Another money source, the total $207.3 million in “soda tax” revenue raised since 2017, could also help – depending on what City Hall priorities are or how urgent the Mayor views his schools crisis. While the purpose of the soda tax was to raise funds for the much hyped Rebuild program, as well as expansion of Pre-K and community schools, it’s not like the city has moved all that fast on the investment: 65 percent of that revenue – or $134 million – is still sitting in the General Fund for reasons even the City Controller can’t explain after discovering it.
We still haven’t touched on the Kenney administration’s own $439 million budget surplus that it touted last fiscal year. Couldn’t the city simply stop waiting for the state and drop it’s own $100 million down to get this done? And City Hall still can’t muster the courage to ask the Philadelphia Parking Authority for more funding – when state-control of the PPA is based on a neglected promise of elevated funding for the schools. While the PPA enjoys nearly $280 million in revenue through March 2020, it only cut a $14 million check for the schools.
Already we’ve identified nearly $600 million – through the surplus and the unused “soda tax” money – that, to our knowledge, is uncommitted. The $200 million for immediate or emergency school repairs could be 33 percent of that unused amount.
In this scenario, we haven’t asked the Commonwealth for money. We haven’t even asked all of Philly’s famous universities to kick in a few dollars from their enormous endowments (although, they most certainly could). Of course, that’s if the city decides to take matters into its own hands and go bold. If district leaders, especially the Superintendent, were more ambitious and forward thinking, they’d consider a few more investment dollars to install solar paneling on all 214 school buildings as an alternative, more efficient, cleaner and cheaper form of power, particularly for heating and air conditioning. The Philadelphia Solar Schools Initiative, back in 2013, had estimated 5,000 solar panels on 20 schools would have cost $1.5 million (let’s round that to $2 million for a combination of cost overruns). And why not go for an even $300 million for a “refresh of school micro-environments” as this EdWeek study suggests? That would then amount to a total $320 million Emergency School Building Revitalization initiative that remediates, repairs and powers toxic-free facilities for Philly’s students. The money, unused, is there and it answers the urgency of the moment. What’s City Hall waiting for?