(Updates with statement from governor’s spokesman)
By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa., Nov 2 (Reuters) - Mayor James Kenney of Philadelphia said on Thursday he would seek to end state control of the city’s school district, the 8th largest in the United States, and vowed to increase local tax support to improve city schools.
Kenney, a Democrat in his first term as mayor, told the City Council he had lost confidence in the likelihood of increased state aid because of Pennsylvania’s own budget woes.
“If we don’t take responsibility for the fate of our schools, then we will continue to relegate generations of Philadelphia’s families to poverty,” he said. “If we pair local control with increased investments, we can finally confront our city’s most persistent challenge.”
Kenney said that responsibility for the schools will rest with the mayor and City Council, as it did before the state took over in 2001 following a series of financial crises. A School Reform Commission (SRC) with three members appointed by the state governor and two by the mayor has run the schools since then.
Deputy Mayor Jim Engler told Reuters that Kenney would consider a property tax increase to push more money to city schools, but said other options will be explored as well.
He said he did not believe any bond restrictions would be violated by a transfer of control of the schools.
“Control by the SRC was always seen as temporary,” he said.
The school district serves nearly 200,000 students, about a third of them in charter schools. It employs more than 8,600 teachers and has an annual budget of close to $3 billion.
State control did not solve the district’s woes. Since 2001, it has closed schools, laid off teachers and administrators, cut expenses to the bone and borrowed to close deficits.
Kenney said the district has been in the black for the past two years but faces a $105 million deficit in the fiscal 2019 school year and a cumulative deficit of nearly $1 billion by fiscal 2022.
A spokesman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said Wolf supported residents controlling schools, rather than state politicians.
“Mayor Kenney’s call for returning to local control today is an important step forward,” spokesman JJ Abbott wrote in an email to Reuters.
The SRC will decide whether to vote itself out of existence at its Nov. 16 meeting. Reversion of control would then need to be approved by the state education secretary. (Reporting by David DeKok; editing by Daniel Bases and Rosalba O’Brien)