Philadelphia, August 6, 2014 – Mayor Michael A. Nutter testified before the Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Appropriations in Philadelphia City Council Chambers this morning. His prepared remarks follow, check against delivery.
“Good morning Chairman Hughes, members of this esteemed committee, and all the members of the Pennsylvania Senate. Thank you for being in Philadelphia this morning, and a special thank you to the members who do not directly represent Philadelphia – thank you for your interest in our schools and our children.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this critical issue facing all of us in Philadelphia, southeastern Pennsylvania, and the entire Commonwealth.
I am honored to sit next to Dr. William Hite this morning. He is a true champion of children.
Let me start by stating a simple truth: without enactment of the cigarette tax, the School District of Philadelphia does not have the necessary revenue to open schools on time, safely, and for the entire year.
That is unacceptable. It would mean Philadelphia’s children will not have their right to a quality education delivered to them – not because of anything they have done, but because of the actions – or in this instance, the inactions – of adults.
Let me also be clear that this catastrophe will not only impact the children in our district-operated schools but also in our charter-operated schools.
We are in this place today not because of a lack of aggressive action by the School District leadership, the SRC, or their staffs.
These are the facts:
The District has taken monumental actions in an attempt to compensate for cuts in state funding and rapidly increasing costs in areas like pensions and other costs of the largest school district in Pennsylvania. The District has cut over 5,000 positions; it has closed 32 schools and slashed its administrative costs by over 50%.
I can point to no other public institution across this Commonwealth that can equal this level of sacrifice. The District has had no choice.
It had to take those steps just to avoid running out of money, but those cuts have meant that students have not received the level of education to which they are entitled as Pennsylvanians. The District simply does not have the resources to provide the type of education its students deserve.
Without the cigarette tax, the District will not even be able to provide the current inadequate level of education it provided during the last school year.
At the end of the last school year, I had the opportunity to visit a number of schools to talk to children, teachers, parents and administrators about how they were affected by the lack of funding for their schools. One of those schools was Bartram High School.
There is only one nurse at Bartram. They have gone from four counselors to two. They have seen a reduction in total staff from 166 positions to only 97 positions in just the last three or four years. That’s almost 40% less staff – adults whose job it was to support the education of children. This is unacceptable.
This potential catastrophe is also not due to a failure of Philadelphia residents to support their schools. Since 2011, Philadelphia’s taxpayers have increased their support of the School District by more than $325 million recurring annually.
To put that funding increase in context, that $325 million is more than the amount that the City has budgeted this fiscal year for our Fire Department, Parks and Recreation, and the Free Library of Philadelphia combined.
We have raised taxes on our citizens time after time for our students.
Despite all of that effort by the School District and Philadelphia’s taxpayers, the school year is still in peril. As we sit here this morning, we do not know if schools will open safely and on time in September.
The District faces a recurring structural gap between its revenues and its expenditures, in large part because the revenues it receives from the state have been slashed and economic stimulus money expired at the same time that costs in areas like pensions, healthcare and debt service have risen rapidly.
And in spite of the constant state of crisis, the Philadelphia School District – and more importantly, our students – has still increased graduation rates by 11 percent in the last seven years and sought to generate opportunities to innovate, even with its wholly insufficient resources.
The District will be opening three schools in North Philadelphia to deliver a highly personalized proficiency-based education similar to many popular magnet and lottery-based charter schools, but targeted to students in surrounding neighborhoods.
And through the School Redesign Initiative, the District has invited local stakeholders, including educators, parents, community groups, and universities, to propose innovative, transformative ideas to fundamentally redesign existing schools.
We must also recognize the efforts of committed parents, students, teachers, and advocates throughout the City who have stepped into the breach to alleviate some of the effects of the crisis with their own talents, resources, time, and commitment.
Positive as these things may be, they simply cannot make up for the fundamental resource gap from which our school system suffers.
The legislature can take action that will ensure that Philadelphia’s school children can attend school safely as scheduled on September 8th and for a full school year – return to Harrisburg and enact the cigarette tax as quickly as possible.
The cigarette tax would in fact generate about $83 million in its first full year. That means that each month the tax would generate about $7 million and that any delay in implementation means millions of dollars in support our students that they will never receive.
Merely advancing funds that the District was already including in its budget for the current fiscal year anyway does not compensate for that loss. The District needs NEW revenue to close its $81 million budget gap – merely getting money earlier in the year does nothing to close the gap.
You have probably heard people question the $83 million estimate for the cigarette tax.
While no one can guarantee how much revenue a new tax will generate, let me assure you that our Health Department based its estimates on reviewing literally decades of research on the impact of increases in the costs of cigarettes, including the impact of cigarette taxes in New York and Chicago.
Yes, the tax will result in a reduction in the number of people who smoke – and that’s actually a positive element. And, yes, some people may buy their cigarettes elsewhere to avoid the tax. The Health Department built all of these factors into its projections.
Those arguments about how much the tax will generate are just a distraction. No matter what actually happens, we know the tax will generate desperately needed revenue, revenue that is critical simply to maintain the current, inadequate level of functioning.
Delay equates directly to further painful losses for our students. It is that simple. The legislature needs to take action and it needs to take that action as quickly as possible. The task is not difficult, but it is vital.
Each house must come back for one day, one hour, and take one vote to finally pass the enabling legislation that both houses have actually already agreed to. We need them to go back to work so our children can go back to school.
The actions the legislature can take now will impact the education of 200,000 students here in Philadelphia now and in the future.
That concludes my testimony and I’m happy to take any questions you may have.”