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Meeting doesn't solve Philly school funding crisis

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A meeting Monday of top Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett produced little progress toward freeing a stalled tax bill that Philadelphia officials say is critical to opening the city's schools on time.

The proposal to authorize the city to levy a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to generate more than $80 million a year for the cash-strapped schools has won preliminary votes in both houses. But in-fighting within the GOP majority over the bill's other provisions has prevented it from being passed and sent to Corbett, who supports the Philadelphia tax authorization.

School district officials have said they will begin sending out about 1,300 layoff notices by Aug. 15 and that city schools will not reopen as scheduled on Sept. 8 unless the measure is passed.

Schools Superintendent William Hite was encouraged by Monday's high-level meeting in Harrisburg and hopeful that it is a step toward "a solution that will benefit the children of Philadelphia," district spokesman Fernando A. Gallard said.

"We will continue to work with them every day until Aug. 15," Gallard said. "The superintendent has said everything is on the table."

House leaders had scheduled a three-day session this week, mainly to vote on the cigarette tax bill, but scrapped it on Thursday because the Republican majority could not reach a consensus. The House is not scheduled to reconvene until Sept. 15.

"It's some of the peripheral issues that are muddying the waters," said House Speaker Sam Smith, who attended the meeting with House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.

"While the timing is uncertain at this point in time, certainly I think both the House and the Senate have demonstrated a willingness to try to get that (Philadelphia tax) component to the governor's desk," said Smith, R-Jefferson.

Corbett's spokesman said the governor is willing to advance the district part of its state subsidy to ensure that the schools can open on time and operate safely and with adequate staffing until the Legislature passes the bill.

"This is about the children of Philadelphia, and the governor will do everything in his power to ensure that those things happen," said the spokesman, Jay Pagni.

City officials have responded coolly to the suggestion of an advance, pointing out it that it is simply an accelerated payment of money already earmarked for the school district. The tax would generate new revenue to help plug an $81 million gap in its 2014-15 budget.

During the closed-door meeting, several dozen parents, teachers and children chanted as they protested in the hallway outside the governor's office, then moved to the floor below, where Smith's and Turzai's offices are located.

"We want funding! We want funding!" they shouted.

Laura Richlin, who has two children in Philadelphia schools, expressed concern that a delayed opening could interfere with her son's college plans.

"The fall of senior year is when everything happens with applications to college," she said.

Elementary school teacher Mike Wass said the cigarette tax proposal, which in its current form would have to be reauthorized by the Legislature after five years, is no solution.

"We're putting Band-Aids on a bleeding wound," he said.

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