Faculty, alumni pressure Penn to make payments to support Philly schools in push for ‘racial and economic justice’
Penn is “denying our city’s children, teachers, and staff millions of dollars they need and deserve," one professor said.
As a product of both Philadelphia public schools and the University of Pennsylvania, Anea Moore knows the disparity between the education systems in the city.
The 22-year-old, who grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, still shudders at the conditions of the bathrooms at Penrose School, and remembers the cockroaches at Masterman. One time, she said, her classroom ran out of paper on the third day of school.
At Penn, as a first-generation low-income student, Moore said, she saw how the school’s wealth and resources opened doors around her, but questioned why the money largely remained on the Ivy League campus while families like hers struggled in the surrounding city, where a quarter of residents live in poverty.
“Every summer, Philadelphia students go home to experiences that directly counter their experiences at Penn,” said Moore, a 2019 Rhodes scholar now pursuing social policy studies at the University of Oxford. “It’s contradictory if the university is investing in them only, but doesn’t invest in their homes, in their families, in their public schools.”
Moore, who graduated from Penn last year, is one of the hundreds of Penn students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members who have joined the growing call for the university to make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to support Philadelphia public schools.
Like other nonprofits in Philadelphia, Penn is exempt from paying property taxes. For years, the university has faced calls to make voluntary payments instead.
The issue is more pressing than ever, activists say, as the confluence of the coronavirus pandemic and a national reckoning over racism has laid bare wealth and racial inequities in the city. Paying PILOTs, they say, has become an issue of both racial and economic justice.
» READ MORE: $29.6 billion of Philly real estate is exempt from property taxes. Should nonprofits be asked to pay up?
Proponents say funding from Penn would help to close resource gaps in the public schools, which enroll primarily low-income students. And in Pennsylvania, where school funding is heavily tied to property taxes, they say nonprofits should contribute to the surrounding city.
This week, Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, Penn for Community Justice, and a group of faculty mobilized to join the call for change and seek answers from the university’s board of trustees.
Their proposal asks Penn to pay the city 40% of what it would owe if it paid property taxes, estimating that would have meant at least a $36.4 million contribution in 2016-17. The School District’s budget for next year is about $3.5 billion.
More than 400 people posted to social media, using the hashtag #DearDavidCohen, to make a direct plea to David L. Cohen, chair of the Penn board, to reconsider voluntary payments. Alumni pledged to withhold donations until the university agreed to make payments to the public schools. Sixty-eight Penn faculty and staff members delivered letters requesting to meet with the board over PILOTs, and more than 900 staff and faculty members have signed a petition created in June calling for the university to make payments.
» READ MORE: Penn professors call for university to pay taxes to support Philly schools
On Friday, the groups rallied in front of the Inn at Penn, honking car horns and taping signs to the building on campus where the board meets.
They pointed to the district’s estimates of $125 million to remove environmental hazards from Philadelphia school buildings, a lack of librarians and counselors, teachers paying for supplies from their own pockets, and the growing school budget deficit caused by the coronavirus shutdown as urgent needs for more funding.
Penn’s trustees, said Graduate School of Education professor H. Gerald Campano, are “denying our city’s children, teachers, and staff millions of dollars they need and deserve.”
A university spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
In early July, Cohen told The Inquirer that “Penn’s position against PILOTs, based on the unique characteristics of Philadelphia’s tax structure and Penn’s enormous contributions to the city and to education, has been made clear over the years. The petition only rehashes prior arguments and Penn’s position has not changed.”
On Friday, in an email to The Inquirer, Cohen said he stood by his statement, saying, “These issues have been fully analyzed and discussed by the administration and the board.”
Penn has a duty to support the city at large, Moore said, beyond the university’s support of the Penn Alexander School or investments in University City.
“Instead of just investing in the students,” she asked, “why not invest in everyone standing beside them?”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.