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UPenn will be contributing $100M to Philadelphia’s school district over the next 10 years. But is that enough?

University of Pennsylvania. November 19, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
It is the largest private contribution to the School District of Philadelphia in its history.

In a November 17 press conference, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, Mayor Jim Kenney, School Board President Joyce Wilkerson, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced that the university will contribute $100 million to the school district, in $10M increments, over the next 10 years.

But not everyone thinks it is enough.

Ann Offner, an associate professor of history at Penn, said in a written statement that the university’s contribution testifies to the power of mobilization by public school students, teachers, city leaders, and members of the Penn community. Offner is part of a Penn for PILOTs group of more than 1,000 faculty and staff members who, along with parents, teachers, students, community organizations, and members of the City Council, earlier called on Penn to pay 40% of what it would owe in property taxes every year.

That would come to approximately $40 million per year — four times what the university has offered.

“Year in and year out, Penn’s property tax exemption deprives the public-school system of funds that students, teachers, and staff need and deserve. Year in and year out, the poorest big city in the United States subsidizes one of the richest universities in the country by forfeiting a portion of its property tax revenues,” Offner said. “A time-limited gift will not make up for Penn’s accumulated debt to the public schools, nor will it ensure that Penn contributes what it owes in the future.”

Offner said the group remains resolved that Penn must make annual payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to the public schools — 40% of what it would owe in property taxes, paid into an Educational Equity Fund governed by the School District and City of Philadelphia. “No gift will substitute, and no gift will quiet our calls for Penn to fulfill this basic civic responsibility,” she said.

Philadelphia Jobs With Justice said it will continue to work with its partners, including Penn for PILOTs and the member organizations of the Our City Our Schools coalition, to hold the University of Pennsylvania and other wealthy nonprofits, like Jefferson and Drexel, accountable for paying their fair share in the city they call home.

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[Editor’s note: The University of Pennsylvania consistently tops Generocity‘s annual list of highest income nonprofits in the city. In 2019, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital ranked #5, and the University itself ranked #14; Drexel University ranked #7.]

“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, executive director of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice. “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.”

Pep Marie, coordinator for the Our City Our Schools coalition, agreed.

“Students, parents, and educators fought for this victory, but this is not enough,” Marie said. “We will continue calling for Penn to pay 40% of exempted property taxes on an ongoing basis and we need other big nonprofits to step up too. As a coalition that represents school communities across the city, we know that there is too much at stake for us to stop fighting now. We are committed, as always, to fighting for the transformation of our schools, neighborhoods and city.”

The $100 million contribution from Penn will be used to remediate environmental hazards throughout the district, including asbestos and lead paint in found in a number of the buildings.

At-large City Councilmember Helen Gym, who has long pushed for civic institutions to make payments in lieu of taxes alongside advocates, noted that earmarking the money for remediation was especially important.

“This money will be used to address the most urgent crisis of our time, the health and safety of thousands of school children,” Gym said, “by helping our school district remediate lead, mold, asbestos and other toxins.”

Spear cited as examples the cases of Lea Dirusson, a public school teacher who developed mesothelioma, a fatal cancer most frequently caused by exposure to damaged asbestos; and Dean Pagan, an elementary school student, who was severely poisoned by lead paint chips that fell from the ceiling of his classroom to his desk below.

Gym also called on other major institutions in Philadelphia to follow Penn’s lead and to pay a fair share investment in addressing the school funding crisis.

“Together with our civic institutions, we can build a new model for equitable partnership with local government,” she said, “and a new infrastructure that not only protects our children, but shows them that they are loved and valued as every child should be.”

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