Amidst the controversy and emotional appeal, many have taken strong stances on the issue of whether Penn should pay PILOTs — payments to the City of Philadelphia in lieu of property taxes, from which the University is exempt because of its non-profit status.
SLAP, the student activist group that spearheaded the “PILOTs at Penn” campaign, is currently pushing Penn to pay $7 million per year in PILOTs. SLAP’s campaign is centered on the city’s massive public education funding gap, which has led to a number of school closures, loss of essential services and an overall failure of the public education system to properly serve the city’s children.
If Penn were to pay PILOTs, much of the money could be lost in the maze of education bureaucracy, with very little of it actually reaching the classrooms themselves. Penn would essentially be handing over a check to the city of Philadelphia with a prayer that it helps the city, and specifically schools, without the ability to trace where the money actually ends.
Some of the money may indeed work to serve the public good, and some of it may even end up helping the city’s children. Even so, $7 million simply does not have the capacity to make the large-scale infrastructural changes that many are hoping to see and that the district so desperately needs.
According to the 2015 Budget report, the “District is operating a budget that is approximately $770 million less than what would be required for adequacy,” meaning PILOTs from Penn would encompass less than 1 percent of the deficiencies in the district’s education budget.
The University’s position seems to be that its civic duty to the city should be about more than just writing a check. Penn has taken numerous steps to facilitate university-community partnerships, and the message from University officials seems to be that through these programs, Penn does a great deal to help the city and has earned the title of “the civic Ivy.” However, there is so little transparency from Penn, we must ask the question: whom do these programs actually serve, the City or the University?
We need look no further than the Penn Alexander School, Penn’s shining symbol of its commitment to the city. The University gives up to $750,000 per year to the local district elementary school it first partnered with in 2001. Penn Alexander is a public, neighborhood school, meaning it is open to the children in the areas immediately surrounding the school.
However, Penn Alexander’s catchment area is largely occupied by professors, Penn-affiliated individuals and others who can afford the expensive housing of the Spruce Hill neighborhood. Travel just five blocks west and you will find the Lea Elementary School, a school marked “intervene” in all but one measure of school performance. Penn Alexander ranks as a “model school” in half of these categories.
What is most clear about the Penn Alexander school is that it does not serve the city’s neediest children.
Penn does boast a number of programs though the Netter Center and Civic House that work with local public schools and community organizations, many of which serve underprivileged and otherwise grossly underserved populations. We do not doubt the intentions and motivation of those who dedicate their considerable time and energy to these programs. However, many of these programs lack the transparent structure and consistent evaluation necessary to be accurately upheld as successful.
We must also remember that, ultimately, truly significant changes in public education funding will come at the state level, where state legislators have the power to determine our city’s education budget. To actively engage and enact change, we need to turn out to vote for what we believe in, pressure our state legislatures to adopt a Fair Funding Formula in Pennsylvania for public education and study the intricacies of the issue both in our classrooms and in the real world through active and meaningful engagement.
Before we can even look at paying PILOTs as a yes-or-no issue, there are many questions that need to be answered. From the effectiveness of Penn’s community programming to the City’s allocation of PILOT funds, these concerns need to be addressed as part of the much-needed conversations regarding the status of public education in Philadelphia and the University’s relationship with the community.
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