POLS ON THE STREET: Can Schools Sue Their Way to Funding?

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THE PENNSYLVANIA Democratic Party opened a campaign headquarters in Progress Plaza on Tuesday. Gov. Tom Wolf, C, was surrounded by a host of the grassroots activists that the Democrats hope to enlist to drive up turnout in the city in November. Congressman Dwight Evans, State Sen. Sharif Street and other local leaders also came out for the affair. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Elections have consequences. And few elections in recent Pennsylvania history have proved to be more consequential than the 2016 Democratic takeover of the State Supreme Court.

That swiftly led to the historic gerrymandering decision that threw most state congressional seats up for grabs this fall.

Now comes a new lawsuit, argued in part by the Public Interest Law Center, which won the redistricting case. Its target? The “hold harmless” provision of the Pennsylvania Fair Funding Formula, which, while ostensibly mandating that the State allocate adequate monies to poor school districts, says (a) that no overpaid school districts can face cuts in allocation and (b) the State cannot be forced to spend more money overall to level the playing field for poor districts. So Fair Funding is only the law; it simply is not the practice.

Republicans in the General Assembly have argued that the law by itself is good enough and that no action can be taken to put it into practice.

The landmark Pennsylvania education funding lawsuit can proceed, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled Tuesday, rejecting the argument made by Republican legislative leaders that it has been rendered moot and should be dismissed. Previous appellate decisions have supported them.

But in PILC’s current lawsuit, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled that the Fair Funding Formula does allow courts to investigate the petitioners’ contention that the current system violates the state constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education.

The case, William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al., was brought in 2014 by a notoriously underfunded Delaware County school district.

In 2016, the Commonwealth Court threw it out, but the Supreme Court overruled that decision last fall, sending it back to Commonwealth Court for further review and argument.

Education Law Center Legal Director Maura McInerney stated, “As the court recognized, our challenge to the inadequacy and inequity of Pennsylvania’s broken school-funding system will persist.”

CITY HALL Courtyard filled with colleagues who shared their grief at the loss of beloved staffer Linda Rios, who was slain in an act of domestic violence. Above, Council President Darrell Clarke took the lead for many other speakers in commemorating Rios’ selflessness and warmth. Below, Council Sgt. at Arms Keith Harris handed out memorial candles. Photos by Wendell Douglas

The petitioners noted that that the spending gap between wealthy and poor districts in the state has widened since the adoption of the new formula, which only applies to about 7% of all the state aid – and an even tinier fraction of total K-12 education spending, which consists mostly of local tax dollars.

Which brings us to the November gubernatorial election. Education funding has become a lead issue in this race. Specifically, Republican challenger State Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York) has seized on a comment by incumbent Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf that he is for applying the Fair Funding Formula as soon as possible.

Wagner’s case assumes that total education spending will not increase. In that case, the Fair Funding Formula would indeed take a static pie of dollars and take them from Midstate school districts. That’s because rural Pennsylvania counties are steadily losing population – and students – so their share of the pie would indeed decline.

All this math is a bit beyond the average voter or parent. But if PILC’s lawsuit progresses to the Supreme Court, it could force a sudden upheaval in school funding that the General Assembly would be unable to prevent. And the current Supreme Court has shown it is willing to upset time-honored Republican applecarts when these are blatantly unfair – especially to the voters that elected the justices.

Maybe a governor could slow down their reform, though. So the position of the man who wins the governor’s race this year could become of huge consequence next year.

Wolf to Wagner: One-and-Done Debate

Wagner proposed that Gov. Wolf and he debate 67 times, one in each of Pennsylvania’s counties. That will be an appealing campaign line particularly in Pennsylvania’s smallest counties, where Wagner hopes to rack up votes.

Whether it’s fair is another question. For instance, Cameron County, Pa. has 5,000 residents. Philadelphia County has 1,570,000. So if Cameron County gets one debate, shouldn’t Philadelphia get 314 debates? That’d keep the boys off the streets, if nothing else.

But it’s all moot. Wolf consented to one debate, at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce in Harrisburg. He is following a time-tested campaign formula: When you believe you are ahead of your opponent, give him as little shared face time as possible.

Toomey: Tariffs Not Good for Pa.

Since U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) will not be up for re-election for another four years, he is free to disagree with President Donald Trump without drawing Trump’s ire in a way that might hurt Toomey with the Democratic base.

Testing these waters, perhaps, Toomey sent a letter opposing the president’s policy on imposing tariffs as part of a widespread series of trade wars with other nations.

His letter reads:

REPUBLICAN City Committee hosted its historic Billy Meehan Clam Bake on the lovely grounds of Cannstatter Volksfest Verein in Holmesburg. L-R were James Williams, former DA candidate Beth Grossman, Cornel Holly, U.S. senatorial hopeful Lou Barletta, Ward Leader Linwood Holland and State Rep. Martina White. Photo by Wendell Douglas

“This week, I sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, reiterating my concerns about the economic harms caused by the Administration’s choice to impose tariffs under the false pretext of national security.

“In addition, I remain concerned that the exclusion process developed by the Commerce Department is inefficient and unnecessarily burdensome, resulting in the delay of timely determinations for Pennsylvania companies seeking relief.

“As the Administration continues to focus on deregulation and other pro-growth policies, it is vital that it remove counterproductive taxes on imported steel and aluminum so that U.S. manufacturers and producers can compete with foreign companies and provide well-paying jobs for American families.

Tough talk for a Republican in Congress. But there are signs Toomey may have a Keystone State wind at his back. Polls have shown higher tariffs are unpopular in Pennsylvania, even in the manufacturing communities Trump is seeking to court with them.

47th Ward Dems at Odds over Money

The 47th Ward Democratic Committee is bubbling over with acrimonious questions about how its money is being handled.

This process began with a bitter ward fight earlier in 2018. Dissidents to the rule of longstanding Ward Leader George Brooks complained that he had never held a single ward committee meeting and had never disclosed any financial information – not even to its elected Treasurer Reginald Bundy, who stated that he never saw any of the ward’s money or processed its checks. Dissidents narrowly lost the ward reorganization meeting vote in June to replace Brooks, but they did receive, they say, an assurance that the committee’s finances would become more transparent.

Since the June election, committee members – including supporters of Brooks – have met at the home of Committeeman Donnie Moore to reaffirm their demands.

Moore and Bundy went to United Bank, where the ward’s money is held. They found there was no account for “47th Ward Democratic Committee.” Instead, there was an account for “Columbia CDC,” with Brooks’ home address on it. Bundy was also listed as the treasurer for that CDC. Bundy saw a check drawn on that account, with his name cosigned under Brooks’; however, Bundy’s signature was forged, he said.

To add further spice to the stew, earlier this year, as reported by the Public Record, Brooks was fined $12,000 by the City Board of Ethics for improper expenditures from an entity called “47th Ward PAC,” which no committee members say they were aware existed. Committee members argue that if such an entity exists in the name of their ward, they should have a say-so in how it operates.

Moore has shared the committee members’ more-recent discoveries with the Board of Ethics.

Moore said that Brooks has not followed through on his promise to hold a regular committee meeting in the ward. Instead, Brooks has been inviting members to meet with him individually in his Center City office.

Attempts by the Public Record to reach out to Brooks for comment have gone unanswered.
Correction: an earlier printed version of this article read, “Brooks and Bundy went to United Bank…”

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