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Penn to donate $100 million to Philadelphia School District to help with asbestos, lead abatement

“This tremendous gift will not only help us to ensure these safe spaces for every student, it will free us to direct our focus to investing," said School Board President Joyce Wilkerson.

University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann
University of Pennsylvania president Amy GutmannRead moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The University of Pennsylvania will donate $100 million over 10 years to the Philadelphia School District to remediate environmental hazards, including asbestos and lead, the school announced Tuesday.

It’s the largest private contribution to the School District in its history and comes as the district, like other organizations, is reeling from the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

Penn president Amy Gutmann said she had been contemplating the move for several months after reading and hearing about the serious environmental issues in the School District.

“I wanted to do something that was citywide. I wanted to do something that would have an immediate impact in these tough times,” Gutmann said. “This was the right thing to do at the right time.”

Gutmann said the money is a voluntary contribution and would come from discretionary funds available to the president, not from the university’s endowment, which stands at nearly $15 billion and covers a fraction of financial-aid costs for students. She said it was her decision to make the donation, but it came with strong support from Penn’s board of trustees and her team.

School District officials said they were grateful for the gift, which will “not only help us to ensure these safe spaces for every student," but will allow the district to invest in “a new and compelling vision for school facilities,” said board president Joyce Wilkerson.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called it a “wonderful gift to the city.”

“One hundred million dollars will go a long way to really restoring these schools and eliminating the toxins that are in the buildings,” he said.

The $100 million figure is just shy of the $125 million Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said it would take to make all city schools lead and asbestos safe. The district arrived at that figure after a disastrous $50 million construction project at Benjamin Franklin High School showed both the depth of the district’s environmental challenges and the blunders it has made trying to address them.

Penn, said Hite, “expressed the desire to do something very specific in that space.”

The donation also follows years of students, faculty, activists, and elected officials lobbying the Ivy League university to make payments to the city in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) to help its struggling schools, an effort that has been ratcheted up in recent months.

But neither Penn nor district officials cited that in the announcement. Hite said the donation was the product of ongoing conversations among the district, Penn, and Mayor Jim Kenney’s office.

While the university’s gift is significant, it will not eliminate the district’s long-standing problems.

For years, the system has struggled to pay for enough teachers, counselors, and nurses to staff its aging buildings and in May was forecasting a $700 million deficit. That has likely gotten worse;,last month the district, which operates on a $3.5 billion budget, said it had to spend $70 million on COVID-19-related expenses.

The 120,000-student school system has long wrestled with environmental problems; the average age of its 200-plus schools is more than 70 years old and the district estimates it has nearly $5 billion in unmet capital needs. Flaking lead paint and damaged asbestos have been the two biggest worries; one longtime district teacher was diagnosed in 2019 with mesothelioma, a deadly, asbestos-caused cancer, after working in schools with known asbestos problems. The teacher, Lea DiRusso, received an $850,000 settlement from the school system.

Meanwhile, a 2018 Inquirer investigation of environmental conditions inside city schools uncovered thousands of issues — mold, deteriorated asbestos, acres of flaking and peeling paint that likely contained lead. Since then, some fixes have happened, but more are needed.

In the 2019-20 school year alone, 11 school buildings were closed, permanently or temporarily, because of asbestos problems.

Philadelphia has long struggled with environmental hazards, such as Lead Paint and Tainted Soil, as well as Sick Schools plagued with lead paint, mold and asbestos. The Inquirer’s “Toxic City” investigation led to sweeping reforms that better protected Philadelphia children from those environmental perils. Read the award-winning coverage here:

Philly's Shame: Thousands of children, year after year, are newly poisoned by lead at a far higher rate than those in Flint. (Oct. 30, 2016)

Lead-Poisoned Soil Resurfaces: Breakneck construction in Fishtown and elsewhere has unearthed a toxic legacy, coating playgrounds and backyards with dangerous levels of lead dust. (June 18, 2017)

Learn At Your Own Risk: Many Philadelphia schools are incubators for illness, with environmental hazards that endanger students and hinder learning. (May 3, 2018)

Hidden Peril:Asbestos is a lurking health threat to children and staff at aging Philadelphia schools. Our own testing finds alarming levels, even after repair work is done. (May 10, 2018)

Botched Jobs:From harmful dust to toxic fumes, the same mistakes are being made in school renovations, at times sickening children and staff. (May 17, 2018)

While calls for Penn to make contributions to the city have been long-standing, they reached a fever pitch this summer, as activists say the confluence of the coronavirus pandemic and national reckoning over racism laid bare the wealth and racial inequities in the city.

In June, Penn faculty and staff joined the chorus to call for payments to the city’s schools. Dozens delivered letters requesting to meet with the board over PILOTs, and more than 1,100 staff and faculty members signed a petition calling for the university to make payments. In the last six months, faculty members joined Philadelphia Jobs With Justice and Penn for Community Justice in demonstrations outside board of trustee meetings. Alumni pledged to withhold donations to the school and hundreds participated in a #DearDavidCohen social media campaign, tweeting direct pleas to David L. Cohen, chair of the Penn board, to reconsider voluntary payments.

Penn, the largest private employer in the city, has steadfastly declined to make PILOTS, saying it contributes to the city and district in other ways, including educational programming, neighborhood upgrades, services, and expertise. The university has invested more than $25 million over the last 15 years in the district’s Penn Alexander School and also has supported the Henry C. Lea school. And the university has said that while it is largely exempt from property taxes, it contributes business, sales, and wage taxes.

Penn’s $100 million donation is not a PILOT, Gutmann said.

Asked if the public protests made a difference, Gutmann said: “I’m always looking for new opportunities to do more and I’m delighted that members of my community wanted us to do more. Everybody wins here. Everybody.”

Devan Spear, a Penn graduate and organizer with Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, who had been advocating for the school to pay PILOTs since 2015, said the voices from faculty made a difference.

“Faculty have been largely silent in the past, so I’m just really impressed by the leadership on faculty who were willing to stand up and make those demands,” Spear said.

Spear and others who have been pushing Penn to make payments called the donation a welcome first step, but said more needs to be done.

“The chronic underfunding of the Philadelphia Public Schools cannot be resolved with a limited commitment of 10 annual payments,” the group, Penn For PILOTS, said in a statement.

Officials said they hope other organizations will be inspired to follow Penn’s lead.

“Government can and should do more, but other folks can help out as well,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), a leading voice in a coalition of union and elected officials and education activists sounding the alarm about poor environmental conditions inside city schools. “This is a long-term investment, and it’s also a moral statement that we’re not going to allow our children to attend schools that are toxic and crumbling in front of our eyes.”

In a conversation with Gutmann on Tuesday, Hughes said he told her that “her ears are going to be burning. I told her we were going to use what Penn has done to get other folks to step up and do the same.”

Gutmann said she had been heartened by the reaction she received within hours of the donation’s announcement, including an email from a nursing-school employee, who wrote: “This is just beautiful and as a product of the Philadelphia public school district moves me to tears.”

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