School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman really screwed the pooch this week by finding the $55 million needed to fund full-day kindergarten. One of the last people to know about it was none other that Mayor Nutter, who had been counting on holding kindergarten hostage in his bid to force a big tax increase through City Council.
Ackerman's office told the mayor's office about the move just an hour before she held her news conference, where she was happy to take credit for it without pondering how she made the mayor's job more difficult.
Within 15 minutes after the news conference, some Council people were saying that since full-day kindergarten is restored we won't have to raise taxes. Hooray!
Meanwhile, Nutter, who was thoroughly pissed, spent the rest of the day making dire statements about how the need for $110 million in new taxes for the schools is still great because, darn it, we are in a crisis!
I have to give Ackerman credit. She is completely tone deaf when it comes to politics and proud of it. As a result, she treats her allies and her enemies the same way. Badly.
In reality, as Ackerman did point out, she did not find new money, she just took existing Title 1 federal money and got permission from
Sugar Daddy. Strike that. Rendell. A block grant program that, if there was truth in labeling in politics, should have been called the "Hey, Let's Find A Way To Give Philly Some Money!" grant.
Alas, by using the Title I money for kindergarten, Ackerman opened up a hole somewhere else in the budget -- as in the poor schools that may have been counting on that Title 1 cash. The size of the district's deficit, which sits somewhere north of $600 million, did not change.
Full-day kindergarten did have a vocal constituency, most of them parents of kindergarteners, who wondered out loud about what the hell were they going to do with their kids if kindergarten was only a half-day? One answer would be: take them home and play with them. But that is not an option for a lot of working mothers.
The mayor is now going to have to regroup -- or perhaps Ackerman and the district are going to have to come up with some other "Kill the Kitty" type cuts that will get Council back on the reservation. So, don't be too surprised if you read soon about a plan to eliminate of all arts and music programs and high school sports.
I guess it's too late to urge that this be a serious discussion about public education in the city. The $600 million deficit is equal to about 20 percent of the district's budget so it should prompt an agonized reappraisal of priorities.
Instead, it appears the mayor prefers the strategy of finding popular programs and holding the gun to their heads.
The Kabuki theatrics aside -- with the mayor shaking his head and sighing over the burdens of leadership, with Council members shaking their heads and saying we don't want to raise taxes -- let's do a reality check.
It takes nine votes to pass a bill in Council. Arguably, the mayor already has six of those votes -- from the retirees who will not be returning next year. If he can't get three votes from the other eight council people, he is nothing but (to steal a Vietnam-era phrase) a helpless, pitiful giant.
Council may get to pick its poison -- an increase in property taxes or a tax on sugared drinks? -- but it will swallow the pill.
-- Tom Ferrick