City Council on Thursday passed a resolution urging the School Reform Commission to halt, for one year, its plan to close more than three dozen schools.
“We’re talking about a plan that should be thought out — with the community involved in the discussions — not being told afterwards and then being told that’s community inclusion,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who sponsored the resolution on the moratorium. “We’re not saying we’re not willing to talk about it. We’re saying we need inclusion on making decisions like this, so let’s hold up.”
The vote took place after one of the more spirited debates in Council’s recent history. Members made their points for more than an hour in front of a packed chamber and a balcony jammed with spectators who waved signs, booed, jeered and cheered, occasionally taxing Council President Darrell Clarke’s patience.
Ultimately, the resolution passed with a 14-2 vote. Members Maria Quiñones-Sanchez and Bill Green voted against it. Councilman Jim Kenney was absent.
“We cannot tell the district to right-size itself, and at the same time not give it money, and at the same time interfere in every single decision,” Sanchez told her colleagues. “It is irresponsible without additional money to tell the school district they cannot do anything.”
While the moratorium came with the enthusiastic support of the audience, which hooted and cheered at passage of the resolution, Council has no authority over the School Reform Commission, and so the vote was largely a show of members’ frustration.
Council cannot force the SRC to halt its plans.
However, it was also a signal — a very strong signal — to school commissioners that this year’s budget battle, when Council will exert its influence over how much money the city will give the district, is going to be tough when it comes to school funding.
For the last three years, Council has raised property taxes in an effort to give the district more money. This year that seems less likely to happen, and while Council doesn’t have any authority over the SRC, Sanchez pointed out that school commissioners will be unable to deal with their own budget without knowing how much money they will get from the city.
“No final decision can be made until we pass a budget,” she said. “I’m prepared to discuss additional funding in a responsible way — and then ask for a moratorium.”
Though she voted against the moratorium, Sanchez said that did not mean the district’s plan had her wholehearted approval. She, too, was annoyed at the way the SRC has handled the rollout of its plan to displace 17,000 students by shutting down 37 schools in an effort to save $62 million.
But, the fiscal reality that the district faces means that schools will close, she said.
Nearly everyone agrees that some schools will have to close. District enrollment is down by about 70,000 students and projected to keep dropping.
Council will get to question school administrators at 11 a.m. on Feb. 12 when it will hold hearings on the plan. Members have complained that they and the community were excluded from the district’s planning process and that the plan ignores some of the city’s realities like turf battles, transportation and logistic difficulties, as well as the impact of closing schools on the surrounding neighborhoods.
In other news, Councilman Bill Greenlee re-introduced a paid sick leave bill that would require employers to give workers one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked.
The timing of his move coincided with one of the worst flu seasons in recent years. Greenlee was quick to capitalize on that fact, noting that the workers who lack paid sick days often have the greatest interaction with the public.
Chef Calvin Okunoye said he called off sick and “was told I wasn’t pulling my weight.”
He had delaying skipping work, worried about how he would pay rent with a smaller paycheck.
“That’s not a choice any worker should have to make,” he said.
Council approved a similar measure in 2011, but Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed it, citing concerns first voiced by business leaders that it would increase the cost of doing business in Philadelphia. Greenlee vowed then that he would bring the matter back to the table and on Thursday, the first day of Council’s spring session, he made good on his promise, and said he was confident he had enough votes to outgun the mayor.
“I’m confident this bill will become law,” he said.
Council also voted 14-3 to override a mayoral veto that blocked changes to the newly adopted zoning code. Green, Sanchez and Councilman Mark Squilla backed the mayor. The remainder of council stuck with Blackwell, voting to override Nutter and change zoning rules to require developers to meet with more community groups in an area before it proceeds with plans, and to provide widespread notification development plans. Under the new code, developers had been required to meet with just one community group, a registered community organization designated to represent a specific area.
With its Thursday vote, Council changed that.
“This bill creates notice requirements that are almost impossible to legally comply with,” Green said. “They will hold up projects in the courts for years … We will all rue the day this veto was overridden.”
Finally, Council agreed to hold hearings on tax exempt properties owned by nonprofit organizations.
“We cannot continue to ask property owners for increased sacrifice [rising property taxes] when we have tax exempt, nonprofit institutions with profit margins that rival major corporations,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who called for the hearings.