When the University of Pennsylvania said it would pay $10 million a year for 10 years to address environmental hazards in Philadelphia’s public schools, Gerald Campano’s reaction was complicated.
“Of course it’s important that Penn at least recognizes the profound challenges that the School District of Philadelphia faces with things like lead poisoning and asbestos,” Campano, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, said. “But charity is not the same as social and racial justice.”
For years, students, faculty members, teachers and activists have been urging the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, to pay PILOTS, or payments in lieu of taxes, in support of the city’s schools, as many other universities do. And last month, the university announced that it would make such a payment, contributing $100 million to environmental remediation in the schools over the next decade.
“I wanted to do something that was citywide,” Amy Gutmann, the university’s president, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I wanted to do something that would have an immediate impact in these tough times.”
As a nonprofit, Penn is exempt from property taxes, which public school systems rely on to pay teachers, nurses and counselors, as well as to finance building maintenance and buy learning equipment. In Philadelphia, public schools are experiencing even greater need now that city and state budgets have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. According to Penn’s announcement, the Philadelphia school district has $4.5 billion in unmet capital needs.
Activists say Penn’s commitment is a step in the right direction but falls short of their goal to have the university pay PILOTs commensurate with the amount of property it owns.
Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, a pro-labor nonprofit, has been campaigning for this for years, and the movement gained added momentum in June, whenPenn for PILOTs, the first campaign led by staff and faculty members, joined the effort.
“This victory is a testament to the strength of the movement by public school teachers, parents and students for equitable funding for their schools,” said Devan Spear, the executive director of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, in a press release. “It is also not the end of this fight. The immense wealth inequality and chronic public-school underfunding in our city requires a fundamental transformation in the way that wealthy institutions relate [to] surrounding communities.”
The Penn for PILOTs group echoed this sentiment. Its statement said that the underlying problem “requires a system of public finance that ensures that the city’s wealthiest institutions pay their fair share every year in perpetuity.”
Both groups said they would continue to demand that Penn pay the 40 percent figure they deem appropriate as a payment in lieu of taxes. They estimate that if Penn paid property taxes on its holdings, it would owe more than $90 million annually, but that it should pay about $36.4 million each year. They suggest paying it into an education equity fund managed by the city council.
In Philadelphia, the effects of underfunding public schools are especially evident.
TheSchool District of Philadelphiaserves 203,000 students and has an annual budget of $3.38 billion. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last year that it would cost $170 million toremove asbestos and lead paintand exterminate bug and rodent infestations in the school district’s buildings. Students and parents have also raised concerns about inadequate numbers of nurses and counselors.
The coronavirus pandemic has added more costs, said Hannah Barrick, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. These include additional teachers to enable smaller, distanced classes; more bus drivers to allow students to spread out; air filtration systems; plexiglass; hand sanitizer; and hotspots and laptops for students. The Philadelphia district is using a hybrid learning model.