The School District of Philadelphia is woefully underfunded for its mammoth undertaking. Property taxes are the largest local source of education funding. Yet, some of the biggest land owners, like the University of Pennsylvania, pay no taxes at all.
We are two school district educators who would like to encourage the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to consider payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), a common practice among private institutions around the country. According to faculty and staff at Penn for PILOTs, if Penn paid 40% of what they would have owed on property taxes in 2016-17, it would have resulted in $36.4 million for the School District of Philadelphia, costing Penn 0.3% of its endowment for that year. In 2019, Superintendent William Hite said that it will cost $75 million to make school buildings lead-safe over 5 years, and $40 million to remove asbestos over the course of 4 years. That school buildings are in such disrepair did not happen overnight but is the result of decades of underfunding.
This underfunding has real-life consequences for our students and staff. When the lead stabilization project happened in the middle of the school year, teachers and students had to temporarily relocate so that their classrooms could be repainted entirely. In 2019, asbestos concerns shuttered six buildings entirely. Many followed the heartbreaking story of Lea DiRusso, a 28-year career teacher who taught at two south Philadelphia schools with known asbestos. She retired early due to a mesothelioma diagnosis, prompting many school-based district employees to wonder about their own health.
We make this appeal to Penn not just because we believe it is the socially just thing to do, but because we also feel it is the neighborly thing to do. In our time as teachers, we have taken part in reciprocal relationships with the university grounded in mutual respect and genuine concern for the education of our students.
There are many ways that Penn students and researchers depend on the hospitality of schools and teachers. Like many of my colleagues across the city, I (Angela) have served as a mentor teacher to interns and student teachers from Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE). I opened up my practice to Penn students as we grappled with the complexities of teaching together. This formative experience for the student teachers is crucial as mentor teachers like myself guide them through meeting the brilliance and giftedness of each of our young students even as we work both against and within a system beset by challenges. During their time in our classrooms, Penn students also offer a creative and fresh perspective that benefits mentor teachers and our students.
As another illustration of our mutual dependence, I (Robert) was approached a few years back by GSE when university students from Guadalajara, Mexico interacted with Penn faculty and students in the pursuit of learning about reading with elementary children. The Mexican teachers were very interested in learning how our students in the District engaged with literacy. We were happy to have them at our school in what turned out to be an exceptionally rich experience for both our school community and the Mexican teachers.
We invite Penn to honor their relationship with our schools by joining teachers to discontinue the disenfranchisement of our students in the most marginalized neighborhoods and embrace our shared personal responsibility to stand up to systemic racial injustice and oppression. The inequitable conditions of our school system, from flooding buildings to a scarcity of counselors, are too great for teachers alone to shoulder. This is not an indictment on the daily operations of the School District, but rather a hard look at the very real consequence of a district that is facing a $704 million deficit by the year 2024-2025 without additional income due to rising charter school expenses and the loss of revenue due to the economic collapse.
Philadelphia is known as a city of neighborhoods. While sections of the city have their own distinct personalities and strengths, in any community it's fairly common to see neighbors looking out for one another. The District needs help right now. We also maintain that Penn needs us as well. Our students, teachers, and school communities have generously welcomed the University in numerous ways. Penn is poised to provide far more than it currently does, and it is especially important that they do so in this national moment of reckoning for racial justice. We are calling on the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to further honor their reciprocal relationship with our schools by agreeing to contribute PILOTs to the proposed Education Equity Fund to be governed by the City and the School District of Philadelphia. Our coexistence in the city of Philadelphia is a powerful statement of a partnership that harnesses the best aspects each has to offer. Let’s continue the neighborly tradition of Philadelphia and look out for one another.
ANGELA CHAN has been teaching in the School District of Philadelphia since 2003 and has mentored Penn students. She currently teaches Grade 3 at Andrew Jackson Elementary School.
ROBERT RIVERA-AMEZOLA is a Penn alumni and has been teaching in the School District of Philadelphia since 2001. He currently teaches Digital Literacy at the Francis Scott Key Elementary School