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Some Penn faculty, staff, and students are calling on the University to pay PILOTs to contribute to Philadelphia public schools.

Credit: Gary Lin

Ahead of the Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday, Penn professors publicly demand that the University reverse its refusal to pay Payment In Lieu of Taxes and ensure adequate funding for the Philadelphia public schools.

Political Science professor Rogers Smith, History professor Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, and Graduate School of Education professors Vivian Gadsden and Gerald Campano held a press conference open to the public on Tuesday to discuss Penn’s obligation to pay PILOTs to Philadelphia public schools.

Farnsworth-Alvear said she hopes the upcoming Board of Trustees meeting will not only begin dialogue about paying PILOTs, but urge Penn to pay 40% of what it would owe in property taxes. Penn for PILOTs — the first united effort by Penn faculty and staff that demands the University pay PILOTs — calculated that under this model, Penn should have paid $36.4 million, or 0.3% of its $12.2 billion endowment in the 2016-2017 school year.

“Penn does do a lot to assist education in many ways, but we all know that those efforts are not sufficient to help bring about the systemic changes we need to help improve public education,” Smith said.

In June, Penn for PILOTs created a petition that received over 1,000 signatures from faculty and staff urging the University to contribute to an Educational Equity Fund governed by the school district and city of Philadelphia.

After receiving no response from administration, 68 faculty and staff members sent individual follow-up emails to the Board of Trustees in July asking to meet with them to discuss their refusal to pay PILOTs, Farnsworth-Alvear said.

Professors Rogers Smith (second row, first column), Ann Farnsworth-Alvear (third row, first column), Gerald Campano (fourth row, first column), and Vivian Gadsden (fourth row, second column) held the press conference.

As a non-profit, Penn is exempt from paying property taxes to the city of Philadelphia, which is projecting budget cuts to its public school system due to the coronavirus pandemic. Penn could opt to pay PILOTs — voluntary financial payments that property-tax exempt organizations make to local governments — but has not done so since 2000.

Smith said that as the leading educational institution in Philadelphia, Penn should commit to improving education for all students in Philadelphia and not just Penn students.

Campano pointed to the mutual relationship between Penn and Philadelphia public schools, noting that the school district of Philadelphia has allowed GSE students to train at their schools, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[Philadelphia] teachers and students have always welcomed Penn students into their classrooms and generously shared their precious time and knowledge,” he said. “They help us fulfill our mission to train teachers in the Graduate School of Education.”

Campano said it would cost the city of Philadelphia roughly $75 million to make its schools lead-free, which would ensure students are not exposed to contaminated drinking water that can impair brain development. Removing asbestos from schools would cost an additional $40 million, noting that six schools shut down due to asbestos last year.

“What, in fact, are we educating children for if we are allowing them to go into unsafe buildings that have asbestos or lead paint?” Gadsden said.

Gadsden pointed out that Penn is not the only university in Philadelphia that does not pay PILOTs, referring to Drexel University and Temple University — both of which do not pay PILOTs. She said Penn has a moral responsibility to set the precedent for other tax-exempt Philadelphia universities by paying PILOTs. 

Public support of U.S. higher education has declined in recent years because of the perception that colleges do not contribute enough to the people of their communities, Smith said.

“Here at Penn, we face the strange paradox that our status as a leading institution has been made possible, in part, by our exemption from the property tax system,” he said. 

While Farnsworth-Alvear said she is not sure whether the University will reconsider their stance on PILOTs, she remains proud of the massive mobilization of over a thousand Penn faculty and staff to urge the University to contribute to Philadelphia public schools.

“We are seeing a generation that has mobilized to try and change the inequities that we have inherited, including the level of racial injustice that our generation has inherited,” she said. “We have a responsibility to undo Philadelphia as a place where that is really felt.”