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Opinion: The call for PILOTs is a call for wealthy nonprofits to invest in justice rather than charity

April 5, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Angela Chan, who has been teaching in the School District of Philadelphia since 2003. She currently teaches Grade 3 at Andrew Jackson Elementary School.
This past year of remote learning has spotlighted the inequitable conditions in Philadelphia public schools.  As the District finally navigates a phased reopening of school buildings, the funding needs will only become greater.

The Philadelphia School Board has no power to raise their own revenue, and the largest source of local funding is from property taxes. Nonprofits are among the largest private landowners in Philadelphia, but they are exempted from paying taxes due to their nonprofit status.

Jefferson University is gearing up to spend more than half a billion dollars on a construction project while revealing little about its financing. Drexel University’s real estate subsidiary “owns, manages, leases or operates a portfolio of over 1 million square feet of both commercial and residential holdings.” Advocates have pressured these wealthy nonprofits to make payments in lieu of taxes  (PILOTs) for years. The chorus of demands has grown especially loud at the University of Pennsylvania, the largest private landowner in the entire city.

Advocates such as Philadelphia Jobs With Justice are now demanding that these nonprofits pay 40% of forgone property taxes —at Penn alone, they estimated this would result in $40 million dollars.

In response, Penn committed to donating $100 million to the School District  over a period of 10 years. This is a good first step, but it is clearly not the same as PILOTs, which will shift wealth from powerful and privileged institutions to the neediest and most marginalized communities.

To put Penn’s annual $10 million donation into perspective, by October of last year, the District had already spent $264 million since March of 2020 on capital improvement projects, and it will also take $125 million to make all schools lead and asbestos safe. While Penn’s donation will support work to improve school  facilities, children need much more than safe buildings to receive the quality education they deserve.

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The burdens of the pandemic already fall most heavily on communities of color, and the wealthiest institutions have a moral obligation to step up even more. In failing to pay their fair share, they have exacerbated the toxic conditions in school buildings, the backlog of maintenance work, and a scarcity of counselors, nurses, and librarians. These conditions should never have been normalized in pre-pandemic times, and the urgency increases as schools face monumental challenges when students return to in-person learning.

We need every available resource to address the trauma that children have already faced.

Calls for PILOTs have resounded in a City Council hearing on March 3 and, more recently, when more than 100 community members marched in University City March 30.

They highlighted the dehumanizing and painful impact of learning and working in crumbling school buildings. They demanded that Penn and Drexel stand in genuine solidarity with communities by investing in justice rather than charity.

Band-aid solutions are not sustainable, and our children deserve more.

Teachers, staff, parents, and the wider community already give what we can to elevate the brilliance of our students within a system that is steeped in inequities. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars in pocket money each year; parents who raise money to fund their own libraries perpetuate an inequitable practice; and a cash-strapped district continues to slash school budgets in a time of crisis. These imperfect, band-aid solutions are not sustainable, and our children deserve more.

To learn more about how you can help, visit Philadelphia Jobs With Justice and join an Action Team. Also, check out Penn for PILOTs and The Bullhorn to learn how you can spread the word, including writing to our elected officials. Call on the City of Philadelphia to negotiate with these wealthy nonprofits to collect PILOTs in order to fund safe and healthy schools.

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