Recently we learned that a teacher at my children’s school, William M. Meredith, has mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It’s getting a lot of media attention, mainly because ours is a gentrified school with the sort of parents who have time and privilege allowing them to swing into action. But environmental hazards are not a new issue; they are a well-known problem affecting around 175 schools in the Philadelphia School District. The city’s schools have long been in crisis.
So when will we admit that a significant solution is in plain sight? It’s time for our wealthy neighbors at the University of Pennsylvania, who occupy 10 percent of the city’s land, to start paying their property taxes.
More specifically, Penn needs to pay PILOT taxes: payment in lieu of taxes. Pennsylvania doesn’t require nonprofits to pay property taxes, even when they are extraordinarily wealthy. Since the Philadelphia School District depends heavily on revenue from property taxes, this exception directly hits schools and the children they educate. But Penn can voluntarily pay PILOT taxes, and all of its Ivy League sisters except Columbia University do.
The school district says that they will spend $20 million on asbestos-related projects this year, and would spend more if only they had the resources. Between 1995 and 2000 Penn paid $2 million per year in PILOT taxes, through an agreement set up by former Mayor Ed Rendell, but then it stopped. Mayor Jim Kenney has suggested he’s got bigger fish to fry. But is the city really in a position to say that $2 million in additional revenue for schools is useless? And why would just $2 million be acceptable?
Penn’s own students have been calling on the school to pay at least $6.6 million per year — in line with what Harvard and Brown have already paid. And Penn can afford to do that and more without flinching —$6.6 million is just 0.1% of its operating budget. Given the massive size of its endowment ($13.8 billion), Penn would have at least an additional $65 million to spend every year if it simply increased its endowment spending rate from 4 to 5 percent, the minimum required for private foundations. No other university in the city could come anywhere close — Drexel’s endowment is around $780 million, and Temple’s is just over $640 million.
Now is the time to act on behalf of our children. In 2016, Princeton University paid $18 million to the town of Princeton to settle a lawsuit brought against it by local homeowners challenging its tax-exempt status. How many more children would be safe from asbestos exposure if the school district could increase its planned spending by $6 million or more?
We need to know the answer. Penn publicly expresses a commitment to improving education for public school students and emphasizes its interest in community health. When it doesn’t, our kids suffer. Many of the outraged parents at Meredith, myself included, are Penn alumni. It’s time for us to insist that the university walk its talk.
Sara Goldrick-Rab is professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.