This past Tuesday, the University announced that it would donate $100 million over 10 years to Philadelphia public schools. The largest private contribution in the school district’s history, the funds will be used to ameliorate the environmental hazards present in those schools, including asbestos and lead.
$100 million is nothing to sniff at. By 2022, the School District of Philadelphia will be $700 million in debt. The COVID-19 crisis has not made these numbers any prettier. Penn’s donation will do a world of good in making sure that West Philly kids have access to safe and healthy learning environments and will help the school district to not go into further debt. Undoubtedly, Penn's donation is a step in the right direction. But it is just that: a step. In light of this donation, we renew our call for the University to pay Payments In Lieu Of Taxes, or PILOTS.
Student activists, professors, and community members, while expressing support for the donation, have underscored that it is not enough. The $100 million that Penn has pledged to the public school systems is but a fraction of the amount that the University would pay if they committed to pay PILOTS, which itself are a fraction of the amount that they would owe if their property were fully taxed under Philadelphia law. Penn for PILOTS estimated that, based on Penn’s 2016-2017 budget, the University would have owed $91 million in real estate tax, and that 40% of that amount should be paid annually in PILOTS, which comes out to $36.4 million. Penn is only paying a quarter of that amount, and only for ten years instead of a perpetual annual commitment. Further, Penn’s donation looks less impressive when one considers that, factoring in inflation, Penn’s $100 million commitment paid out over the next ten years will only amount to $87.5 million in today’s dollars.
Penn would like accolades for "donating" $100 million to the Philadelphia public school system. But this is money that Penn owed the West Philadelphia community it calls home in the first place. Returning stolen money is not a donation. "Stolen" is not an overreaction. Penn’s campus, and University City generally, occupies what was once known as the "Black Bottom," a thriving majority-Black community before Penn claimed their land as part of an "urban renewal" campaign. Ever since, Penn has continued to encroach on the West Philadelphia community by buying up more property and gentrifying the area around the University. This is not to mention that, in large part because of Penn, the West Philadelphia community is severely overpoliced. Six different police departments patrol a one-mile radius around Penn’s campus. Over-policing endangers the lives of West Philadelphia’s predominantly Black community, such as with the recent tragic shooting of Walter Wallace, Jr.
While the $100 million donation is a good first step and a testament to the tireless efforts of student and faculty activists, it comes up short in fulfilling Penn’s full obligation to its community. Penn must make systemic changes and commit to significant, annual payments to the community that it has exploited for years. This year has underscored the need for racial justice in this country and in our communities. While welcome gestures, erecting statues and donating to Philly schools do not excuse Penn from delivering the social and economic justice it owes to West Philadelphia.
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