Penn faculty calls on university to pony up to help pay for city schools

Houston Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — More than 900 faculty and staff members at the University of Pennsylvania have signed a petition calling on the school to make payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT payments, to support Philadelphia’s public schools.

“We delivered the petition to the trustees about three weeks ago, but we’ve heard no response from them,” said Gerald Campano, a professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, said.

“Last week, 68 of us followed up on that petition by requesting individual meetings with about 20 members of the Board of Trustees,” she added, “This is the first time Penn faculty and staff have ever brought this issue directly to the university’s highest governing board.”

The request to meet with trustees is part of a city-wide campaign coordinated by Philadelphia Jobs With Justice to establish PILOTS agreement between the City of Philadelphia and its largest nonprofits.

The advocacy group along with petitioners are asking Penn to pay 40% of what it would owe in property taxes, if it were not tax-exempt.

“Philadelphia public schools have been underfunded for years and are facing a catastrophe budget crisis right now due to the pandemic,” said associate professor in Penn’s history department Amy C. Offner.

“We know that if Penn were to pay its fair share of just 40% of what it would owe in property taxes, that it would go a long way toward alleviating the crisis of the public schools and making sure that every child in Philadelphia got an adequate public education,” she added.

In Philadelphia, over 10% of property is owned by nonprofit tax-exempt institutions. Penn, which is the seventh richest university in the country, owns over $3 billion in property despite Philadelphia having the highest poverty rate of the ten largest cities in the United States.

Penn lecturer in Political Science Mary Summers said that Philadelphia nonprofits need to address critical issues of “racial and economic justice.”

“The funding from Penn could help address critical issues like: asbestos and lead in the buildings and overcrowding in the classroom to having more nurses and counselors on staff,” Summers said.

“If students in the suburbs don’t have to deal with these problems our students shouldn’t have to either,” she added. “If Penn does the right thing we will be able to help our schools in a huge way.”

During Ed Rendell’s tenure as Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s, Penn made PILOT payments along with other universities, colleges, and nonprofits in the city. However, the city’s program expired after a court ruling made it easier for nonprofits to gain exemptions.

In the petition it states that “nearly every other Ivy League University” already makes PILOTS. Penn has been asked for years by students, faculty, and staff to voluntarily make payments in lieu of taxes.

“The Ivy League schools pay some percent of what their property tax would be to support their communities and schools,” Summers said. “In Boston, the city is completely dependent on property taxes.

“Philadelphia is more reliant on wage taxes, but the school district is reliant on property taxes,” she added. “That’s why our focus is on the educational equity fund to support the schools.”

Campano said that he hopes the board of trustees will respond to the faculty and staff request to meet.

“Penn prides itself on being a community and having open conversations and dialogues,” Campano said. “This time should be no different. The trustees should be willing to meet with us to talk.

“We’re very passionate about this issue because not only do we work in education, but we also know how much of a difference a good education can make in students’ lives,” he added. “We have an opportunity to make a difference in the Philadelphia Public schools.”

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared