Lessons from a budget battle

10septLast Thursday, City Council decided democracy was inconvenient.

Faced with a deluge of phone calls and an unprecedented outpouring of parent action around the progressive Use & Occupancy tax, City Council President Darrell Clarke shut down an expected vote on the tax and instead announced that the City would seek over $74 million for schools through a tax on cigarettes and improved delinquent tax collection.

One City Hall insider told me certain members of City Council were “sh*!%ing bricks” at the number of phone calls they were Tonayia Marla Fox Chasereceiving and were unhappy at the idea of taking a public vote on the Use & Occupancy Tax.  At least one City Council office said they had received almost 100 phone calls on Wednesday, the day before the vote.

Council members said that the passage of U&O would threaten cigarette tax legislation moving through Harrisburg. Clarke echoed the sentiments of Council when he said that the City wanted to shift attention away from Philadelphia and focus attention on Harrisburg to solve the schools’ problems. Not surprisingly, turns out that PA’s solution is simply to foist it all back onto Philadelphia anyway.

CityHall1 The move stung many who had worked tirelessly to build support around the Use & Occupancy tax (U&O) as an important school funding guarantee. The cigarette tax required state action. U&O was entirely within the city’s control. Moreover, the bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, was structured as a grant to the School District, not as a direct payment. As such, Parents United for Public Education and others felt that there was a chance to not only ensure a school funding guarantee but to have some say in determining how restored funding would be spent.

It was particularly upsetting because of the way parents were treated during the Council session. Dozens were denied entry into Council chambers. Arcane rules were suddenly invoked in order to limit public testimony. Parents nevertheless held a people’s assembly outside the chambers, reading aloud some of the 4,000 letters which had recently been delivered to Harrisburg and making statements about the importance of parent action.

CityHall-6 CityHall-11 CityHall5CityHall3Despite Council’s behavior, it’s important to remember how significant an impact the broader public and organized parents had on this budget battle.  After all, this was an uphill fight from the start, thanks mostly to Mayor Nutter’s failure to include any money for schools in the budget he presented to City Council. That alone ensured a down-to-the-wire frenzy instead of a strategic school funding campaign.

CityHall-10We faced the well-financed and long-time lobbies of the Chamber of Commerce which vehemently opposed the U&O. Chamber of Commerce president Rob Wonderling complained  in Council that the U&O tax put the “sole burden” of school funding on the business community (conveniently ignoring three straight years of property tax increases while commercial landlords enjoyed millions in tax breaks). Corporate lobbyists from the hotel and casino industry successfully opposed the liquor-by-the-drink tax, and convenience store giant Wawa was reportedly in the state capitol within hours distributing flyers which questioned cigarette tax legislation.

CityHall-13Despite these obstacles, the crisis – in fact the entire year of community activism which included thousands of people coming out around the school closings – moved schools and communities across the city to take heroic action.  More important, it resulted in an independent community voice that forced Council and others to some action, if not the fullest action.

As our attention turns to Harrisburg, here are some lessons we learned from this most recent budget battle in City Council:

  1. Timing matters: Budgets are always finalized in the last minute but laying the groundwork about school funding expectations can never happen early enough. Parents need to begin a process early this fall seeking sponsors for next year’s school funding bill.
  2. Developing relationships matter: Corporate lobbyists aren’t successful just because they have a lot of money. They’re successful because they purposefully and relentlessly pursue elected officials and let them know that they will vote/donate/support their elected officials based on their issues. Parents must build on the work we did this past spring and let them know we’re paying attention and won’t drop the issue.  Erratic eruptions of civic activism amid crisis is not the same as sustained political advocacy over time.
  3. Keeping a local focus matters: I like a good Harrisburg rally as much as anyone, but let’s face it. If our own local legislators are not feeling the heat to fight for us in Harrisburg, why would anyone else? Local politicians told us repeatedly to go to Harrisburg, but the sharpest thing we can do is to laser in on our local leaders in Council, the Mayor, civic leadership and the local Harrisburg delegation and hold their feet to the fire to do everything possible to fight for us in the state capitol.
  4. A principled vision matters: One of our biggest challenges continues to be countering the prevailing narrative around funding “failed schools” – a narrative the District and top city leaders themselves evoke to our detriment. School activists rose to the occasion – establishing clear educational and academic priorities that built toward unified struggle. School safety aides went on a hunger strike to demand attention to the fragility of school climate and the importance of non-police safety personnel in schools. Teacher Action Group (TAG-Philly) started a website telling stories of the 3,800+ school personnel laid off this month. The importance of having a clear vision and priorities for funding remains crucial.
  5. An independent parent voice matters: From Fox Chase and McCloskey in the Northeast to Cook-Wissahickon to Powel in West Philadelphia to GAMP in South Philadelphia, parents this year took a lead in a real grassroots and coordinated effort to build voice and movement at their schools. Experience mattered. Having independent watchdog groups on education voting helped streamline and focus parent actions. New media allowed parents in all parts of the city to become better informed and take a more independent path. Thanks to the strong outcry, it’s clear that parents are not satisfied with diverting a “doomsday budget” and want longer-term stability and funding efforts for schools. Such actions have also had some influence on District officials who are temporarily delaying charter expansion.

However disappointing or tiring this year’s budget battle was, it could not have been more important. The mistake would be for it to remain this year’s battle rather than what it should be – laying the groundwork for next year’s school funding campaign. Though we may not have achieved all the successes we set out to accomplish, we established the groundwork for another powerful effort next fall. We will be back in City Hall, and this time we won’t be asking for ad-hoc, last minute favors. We’ll be looking at real structural funding changes for our schools and the priorities which make the investment worthwhile. We’ll need our parent leadership to stay strong and focused if we’re going to get the political traction we need for the bigger struggles which lie ahead.

Watch NBC10: Parents Rally for Funding at Council Hearing


4 thoughts on “Lessons from a budget battle

  1. I was upset because I had signed up to speak and then was not allowed in until I started to talk to the media and then they let us into the Chambers. Then after The President called about five names, he let about three speak and then abruptly cut the person off announcing that testimony time has ended. I had walked To City Hall and could not believe that this happened and how us parents we were treated. This is a democracy and I felt like we were living in a socialistic or communistic country. I am extremely unhappy with this scenario. We told the media, but they did not mention that we were not denied access at first and a right to speak. Instead, they just said that we were angry parents.

  2. And look how well their gambit paid off. Now we don’t have the U&O *or* the cigarette tax as a revenue source. Well played, Council members.

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