Houston Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus (Philadelphia Tribune photo).
By Chanel Hill
PHILADELPHIA — More than 200 faculty and staff members at the University of Pennsylvania have urged their new leadership to pay “fair share” to support Philadelphia public schools.
The Penn faculty and staffers have delivered letters to the new Chair of the Board of Trustees Scott L. Bok asking him to reverse the university’s position on payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to Philadelphia public schools.
Bok began his new role in July 2021. He succeeded David L. Cohen, who had been acting chair since November 2009. Cohen, who was a noted opponent of PILOTs, is now the U.S. ambassador to Canada.
“With Scott Bok being the new chair of the Board of Trustees, which is Penn’s highest governing board, and incoming president Elizabeth Magill taking over leadership in July, we think that the change in leadership is an opportunity for the university to fulfill its civic responsibility,” said Amy C. Offner, associate professor in Penn’s history department.
“We would welcome the opportunity to sit down with Scott Bok and Elizabeth Magill to talk to them about how paying PILOTs could help Philadelphia schools,” she added.
The letter was organized by Penn for PILOTs, an organization of over 1,100 faculty and staff members from across the university and Penn Medicine.
The group is calling on Penn to pay 40% of what it would owe in property taxes every year on a permanent basis, if it were not tax-exempt.
The group also said it believes that Penn should make payments toward an Education Equity Fund that is governed by the School District of Philadelphia and the city.
“Public schools depend on property taxes and our citywide campaign has called on Penn and other endowed nonprofits to pay 40% of what they would owe in property taxes to public schools,” Offner said. “We estimate for Penn that a full PILOT payment for Penn would be $40 million a year.
“If Penn were to pay its fair share of just 40% of what it would owe in property taxes that would go a long way toward alleviating the funding crisis of public schools,” she added. “It would also help every child in Philadelphia get an adequate public education.”
Penn is the seventh-richest university in the country. The university’s endowment in June 2021 was $20.5 billion and the annual return on investment for fiscal year 2021 was a record 41.1%, according to the Penn for PILOTs website.
In 2020, Penn announced a $100 million donation to the School District of Philadelphia to remediate environmental hazards, including asbestos and lead in the public school buildings. The gift will be paid over 10 years.
In the letter to Bok, Penn for PILOTs responded to the donation.
“We’re really proud of the gift of $100 million over 10 years, but we also recognize that it’s only a first step,” said Jolyon Thomas, associate professor of religious studies.
“Penn’s investments have grown by $5.6 billion, so why is the university not willing to pay a little bit more?” he said. “We’re not expecting Penn to cover all of the city’s bills, but we do think the university can be doing more.
“Penn can increase its annual payment to the schools from $10 million to $40 million this spring,” Thomas added. “The city budget process begins at the end of March and our university can cooperate with the city government to make a full PILOT payment part of the budget.”
During Ed Rendell’s tenure as Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s, Penn made PILOT payments along with other universities, colleges and nonprofits across the city.
However, the city’s program expired after a court ruling made it easier for nonprofits to gain exemptions. In 2015, City Council passed a resolution in favor of PILOTs.
Nearly every other Ivy League university already makes PILOT payments. Penn has been asked for years by students, faculty and staff to voluntarily make payments in lieu of taxes.
“I think this is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Thomas said. “Just like we’ve been putting pressure on the Board of Trustees to be thinking about this issue, we would love to see pressure from the city government as well.
“This is an opportunity this month, where the trustees are establishing a new policy, they’re meeting with the new president, and the city is establishing its budget for the next fiscal year,” he said. “We hope to see something positive emerging out of this in the short term, and we hope to see Penn fulfill its obligation to the city long term.”
Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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