In the 139 days since Tom Wolf was inaugurated as governor of Pennsylvania, he’s spent a significant portion of that time touring 30 schools across the state, from Erie to Kensington.
The new governor’s social media accounts have been littered with never-ending photos of him smiling with kids and shaking hands with teachers, walking the halls with aides and chatting up superintendents. It’s happened dozens of times over.
But why visit *so* many schools across the state? Simply stated: It’s budget time. And that means it’s also selling-the-budget time.
“The primary focus of the governor’s tour is talking with schools about their needs and how they will use the funding,” Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s spokesman, told Billy Penn.
Wolf’s trek to schools across the commonwealth, dubbed the “Schools That Teach” tour, is now on a month-long hiatus in June while lawmakers
hold open meetings make back-room deals with each other so they can figure out how to best spend your taxpayer dollars over the next fiscal year. And those budget talks take a lot of time, especially when the new governor has made huge promises to better fund education while working with a Republican-controlled legislature that’s less than excited to compromise.
After the budget is finalized, Wolf’s administration says the tour across the state will continue — but for this first leg, the main goal was getting educators on board with his budget plans so they can pressure their lawmakers to adopt his ideas.
Here’s where Wolf has visited so far, according to his administration, including two schools in Philly:
Sheridan said Wolf’s main goals while visiting with students and educators are as follows:
- Selling his ideas and budget plans
- Talk with people in schools about how they were affected by cuts to education over the last four years under the Gov. Tom Corbett administration
- Discuss with teachers and administrators how they might use cash coming in, should the legislature agree with Wolf and decide to pump millions more into the school system
To the last point, Sheridan said Wolf has heard three main areas where educators would like to inject more funding: full-day kindergarten and early-childhood education, career and college building for high schoolers and bringing back teachers who were laid off during cuts.
Those goals largely align with ones in Philadelphia, as thousands of teachers and employees were laid off in the last several years as the District has grappled with budget shortfalls that had to have Band-aids placed on them through increases in sales and cigarette taxes.
Sheridan said Wolf’s budget plan, which aims to increase education spending statewide by $1 billion, would also offer relief to wage taxes and reduction in the corporate net income taxes in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, it’d also increase the personal income tax, hike the sales tax and up cigarette taxes by $1 a pack statewide (after eliminating the Philly-specific $2-per-pack cig tax and additional 1 percent sales tax).
The bedrock of Wolf’s spending plan is taxing the natural gas companies a 5 percent severance tax, most of which would be used to fund schools.
While these are Wolf’s hopes — supported by much of the Democratic legislative caucus in Harrisburg — it’s generally unknown what the finished budget might look like by the deadline of July 1. Republicans may be willing to compromise on some taxes in order to put some funding back into the education system (something that almost always resonates with voters), but leaders in the party have publicly chided Wolf’s spending plan as unrealistic.
Meanwhile, Sheridan said Wolf has been working with lawmakers and leaders in Philadelphia — including Mayor Michael Nutter and Superintendent William Hite — to work to reduce the budget burden currently placed on the city.
That, of course, sounds well and good. But city officials are planning a budget like they have for the last several years by not counting on an influx of help from Harrisburg. Nutter has proposed a nearly 10 percent hike in city property taxes (while Council has proposed increasing other taxes) in order to make up for a nearly $105 million budget shortfall the district is facing in the coming fiscal year.
Sheridan said the governor feels that the move that can most help the School District of Philadelphia is instituting a fair funding formula. The state’s Basic Education Funding Commission has a deadline of this Wednesday for when it needs to present recommendations for its statewide funding formula.
From there, Sheridan says, it’ll be up to the legislature to make it real.
Photo: Courtesy of Gov. Wolf’s press office