Philadelphia’s newly elected leaders have their sights set on a shared cause: urging nonprofits like Penn to help fund Philadelphia schools.
Jim Kenney, former Fels Institute of Government instructor and newly elected mayor, and Helen Gym, 1993 College graduate, former Daily Pennsylvanian editor and newly elected Councilwoman, ran for office on a Penn-centric platform. If elected, they agreed to work with large nonprofits in Philadelphia, including and especially Penn, to revive the city’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program.
PILOTs are monetary contributions that nonprofits voluntarily make to their cities to maintain essential services like road maintenance and trash pickup. Penn was involved in a five-year PILOT program from 1995 to 2000, during which it annually contributed $1.93 million, 55 percent of which went to the school district. Penn did not renew contributions after 2000, and has since stood firm on not paying PILOTs despite ongoing pressure and criticism from activists and student groups like the Student Labor Action Project.
In protests over the last few months, SLAP has called on Penn to pay a sum of $6.6 million in PILOTS in order to fund Philadelphia’s struggling school system. Penn has refuwsed, citing an annual commitment of $800,000 to the Penn Alexander School and other involvement through the Netter Center.
Aside from Columbia, Penn is the only Ivy League school to not pay PILOTs. According to the most recent data, Harvard pays nearly $10.1 million in PILOTs, while Yale contributes $8.1 million.
With Kenney and Gym in office, however, many expect there will be a more rigorous push for a PILOT program.
Kenney’s online platform states that he will work with the Office of Property Assessment and a special task force to determine the total value of Philadelphia nonprofits and their level of contribution to the city, and then look for ways to increase the contributions through PILOTs and SILOTs, Services in Lieu of Taxes.
In her online platform, Gym also states the importance of encouraging “our nonprofit giants to revive the City’s once thriving PILOT program,” and says that the best way is not a forceful one.
“I think the most important thing is to get our best civic actors really engaged with the issue of funding inequity of the school district. The question of whether Penn contributes generously to our city is not debatable. I acknowledge it, and I think they earn and deserve praise for it,” Gym said. “But, we’re trying to send out a message to the nation that Pennsylvania being the worst state in funding disparity is something that no one should stand for and that we’re going to invest in bigger solutions. And I think it has to start out with conversations, not with threats or by imposing programs or dictates on entities and organizations.”
Gym said that she looks forward to working together with the mayor’s office to address the funding inequities. “I think there’ll be a great partnership with City Council and the Mayor’s office,” she said. “We just came off of four years with a governor who didn’t see schools as a major investment, but we’re going to see a change in how we prioritize public education, and I’m excited.”
Penn Political Science lecturer and Fox senior fellow Mary Summers, who has been working with students interested in the debate around PILOTs, expressed hope about the new leadership.
“Both of them [Kenney and Gym] seem to be addressing the issue from a collaborative stance to find appropriate ways to solve the crisis of education in our city,” Summers said. “The ‘make Penn pay’ rhetoric is not the way to begin the conversation, and I’m hopeful that they will approach Penn in a spirit that President Gutmann and the Board of Trustees and the faculty will respond to.”
Groups like SLAP and Penn Dems are also enthusiastic about the newly elected leadership, maintaining that Penn needs to do more to help Philadelphia schools.
“Sure, Penn already provides a great deal to the community, but the University should not rest on its laurels,” said College senior and Penn Dems President Sean Foley. “With a school system in crisis and [one of the] highest poverty rate among America’s largest cities, Philadelphia is in desperate need of more resources, and Penn should continue to seek new ways to create opportunity for Philadelphians. PILOTs, or some comparable alternative, would be a good start.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Helen Gym saying, "We just came off of four years with a mayor who didn't see schools as a major investment." The article has been updated to reflect that she referred to the governor, not the mayor, in her quote. The DP regrets the error.
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