More than 100 educators, students, and activists marched through University City on March 30 to urge Penn and other property tax-exempt universities to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes to Philadelphia.
The protest, called #PhillySchoolsDeserve: A March for PILOTs, was co-sponsored by Penn Community for Justice, Drexel Community for Justice, Penn for PILOTs, and other community organizations, according to the Facebook event.
"Public school buildings are reopening, yet the many health and safety hazards present in those buildings have still not been meaningfully addressed," the Facebook event states. "Meanwhile, nonprofits like Penn and Drexel continue with multi-million dollars construction and renovation projects."
The two-hour protest started at 4:30 p.m. near 38th and Walnut streets, where government officials and local students declared that Penn and Drexel University have an obligation to support their local communities by paying PILOTs.
2013 Engineering graduate Rick Krajewski, who serves as House representative from Pennsylvania's 188th district, which includes Penn's campus, commended the University's 10-year commitment to contribute $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia, but added that it is only one step toward helping address systemic racism and a lack of affordable housing and school funding in the community.
Penn announced in November that it would contribute $10 million annually over the next decade to address environmental hazards in Philadelphia's schools, including asbestos and lead.
“An institution with $14 billion in endowments can do so much more. It must do so much more,” Krajewski said. “We can model what it looks like to create real community benefit agreements between a university and neighborhood it aims to serve. We can knock down the ivory towers and strive to make education access as equitable as possible. And we can make it so a poor Black child doesn’t have to question whether they belong when they step onto campus. I was one of those poor Black children, and I don’t want anyone to go through that feeling ever again.”
Penn's donation to the school district prompted calls for neighboring universities to follow suit, though Drexel President John Fry said Drexel has no plans to pay PILOTs.
Academy at Palumbo senior Christina Ly, who is a member of the Penn Class of 2025, said that when sections of a cafeteria ceiling at her school collapsed in September 2018, students had to shovel the rainwater with buckets to get to their classes. She called on local universities to pay PILOTs so Philadelphia schools could address infrastructure problems.
College junior and Penn Democrats President Cassy Ingersoll said that she came to the event with other Penn Dems members to demand Penn to pay long-overdue PILOTs to Philadelphia public schools.
Protesters started marching up Walnut Street at about 5:15 p.m. and turned on to 39th Street to walk through Penn’s campus as Penn Police officers stood at the edges of the crowd, which chanted, “No justice, no peace, no greedy trustees,” and “Hey Penn, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side,” to the sounds of drums.
At about 6 p.m., protesters reached Drexel’s campus and stopped at the intersection of Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, where several teachers and students spoke in front of what is to become Drexel’s 500,000-square-foot life sciences building worth $300 million.
Daniel Reyes, a teacher at a West Philadelphia high school, decried the reopening of Philadelphia schools so that their students can take “dehumanizing” standardized tests in unventilated classrooms in May amid the pandemic. He criticized how there is enough money for standardized tests, while there is a lack of funding for teachers, counselors, nurses, and support services for students and parents in public schools.
“While the recovery from COVID-19 will be put on the backs of working people, put on the backs of Black and brown communities, institutions like Drexel continue to sit on wealth and real estate that belongs to our city’s working class,” Reyes said.
As the crowd chanted, “That ain’t your money, it’s our money,” Reyes said that part of the wealth and real estate that property tax-exempt institutions like Penn hold belongs to Philadelphia public schools, city workers, janitors, teachers, and nurses.
Masterman School senior Aden Gonzales said that Philadelphia public schools are "disgustingly underfunded," adding that students are being sent the message that, unlike students at institutions like Penn and Drexel, they are unworthy of clean schools and academic resources.
“Why is it that I don’t see my Philly peers in Penn’s faces?” College first year Juliet Dempsey, who attended a public school in Philadelphia, said while speaking to the crowd at the protest. “Philadelphia is not a playground — it’s time to pay your share. [Philadelphia] schools deserve exceptional learning conditions. [Philadelphia] schools deserve resources. [Philadelphia] schools deserve to thrive, and [Philadelphia] schools deserve PILOTs.”
Kensington Health Sciences Academy teacher Paul Prescod said that Philadelphia communities would not be underserved in the first place if rich institutions invested in them instead of creating community engagement programs.
“I don’t want to hear about your charity programs, I don’t want to hear about the so-called underserved youth," Prescod said. "If you want to help out, if you want to give back — pay PILOTs. Period.”
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.