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Political science professor and Fox Leadership fellow Mary Summers spoke about PILOTs to an audience that included Penn NAACP, Penn Education Society, Penn Democrats and SLAP.

Credit: Mi Jiang

PILOTs has become something of a buzz word at Penn following the protest at Penn President Amy Gutmann’s annual holiday party last December. The Student Labor Action Project held an event Tuesday night to clarify what the term really means for students.

About 30 people attended the Houston Hall event hosted by SLAP along with Penn Education Society, Penn National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Penn Democrats. Penn professor Mary Summers, who has spoken publicly in support of Payments In Lieu of Taxes before, spoke at the event.

PILOTs are contributions that nonprofit organizations can voluntarily make to local governments to cover costs of essential services like fire protection and road construction.

Before Summers spoke and answered questions from audience members, SLAP member Devan Spear gave a presentation about what PILOTs are and the state of Philadelphia schools. Attendees broke into groups to discuss their views on the situation in Philadelphia schools and the implementation of PILOTs.

“The goal tonight is raise awareness, but also provide real insight into an issue that at its core showcases many of the inequalities perpetuated today,” President of the Penn NAACP Keishawn Johnson said in a message.

The School District of Philadelphia has struggled with gaps in their budget over the past several years after decreased funding from the state level leaving schools in dire need of resources and the School Reform Commission, the school governing board, to have to look for new sources of revenue each year. “This state-led school budget cutting is inexcusable,” Spear said.

Because Penn is considered a nonprofit, Pennsylvania state law exempts the University from paying property taxes, which in large part go towards the funding of public schools in Philadelphia.

“Funding is a huge cause of many problems. Additional funds within the city of Philadelphia could always be a good thing,” Preisdent of Penn Education Society and College senior Melanie Young said. As a native Philadelphian, she said that she feels especially connected to the issues addressed in the discussion Tuesday night.

As one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia, Spear said, Penn paying PILOTs contributions would pave the way for other nonprofits to pay them as well.

Penn, among many other things, cites its status as the largest private employer in Philadelphia and their employees’ contributions to wage taxes as evidence of their impact on the community. “SLAP believes as the largest private land owner in the city, Penn has an obligation to contribute not just through the individual wage tax and the many individual school partnerships, but as an institution,” Spear said. “SLAP believes [Penn] should be held accountable to pay its fair share.”

One student at the event inquired about the cost burden of PILOTs on the University. “It’s a teeny, tiny piece of our budget when you think of it compared to lawn care,” Summers said.

“Penn is part of a system that allows very wealthy people to set their own priorities,” Summers said.

Summers spoke to the growing income inequality in America over the past 40 years. “This growing inequality is serving the needs of only the most elite,” Summers said. “Penn is becoming more and more dependent on its wealthiest alumni and the priorities it sets on what could appeal to very wealthy people.”

“I came to Penn because of the commitment to public engagement,” Summers said. She believes PILOTs would benefit the University as a whole and is not just about saving schools in Philadelphia.

“How the University functions and its commitment to keeping alive liberal arts and great things like research and all those things that Penn wants to achieve is threatened by a society where we have systematically told the very wealthy that they have more and more control,” Summers said.

Since the demonstration in collaboration with Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation at Amy Gutmann’s holiday part in December, this is SLAP’s first action towards the cause of PILOTs this semester.

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