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Antione Little, with the Our City Our Schools coalition, speaks at a rally for a PILOT program that he says would raise $1 billion for schools in the next five years without raising taxes on working people.
Antione Little, with the Our City Our Schools coalition, speaks at a rally for a PILOT program that he says would raise $1 billion for schools in the next five years without raising taxes on working people.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Community feels left out of Strawberry Mansion plan

Tension was high this spring when the School District briefed local residents on its plan to phase out Strawberry Mansion as a comprehensive high school.

To make better use of the building, where fewer than 300 students are enrolled, Mansion will host accelerated learning programs and an evening high school starting in September that could accommodate up to 500 students. Officials pointed out that the vast majority of students in the Mansion attendance area – 75 percent –choose other high schools instead.

The District is also considering a new skills-based high school for 2019-20 similar to the Workshop School, which has a project-based curriculum, and/or YouthBuild, a one-year program for 12th graders that focuses on academics and construction skills.

“We are committed to working with the community in terms of the repurposing of this building,” said Eric Becoats, assistant superintendent of the Turnaround Network. “This is an important building in the community.”

The changes, however, were planned with minimal community input. It wasn’t until the week before the March announcement of the plan that selected community members were invited to meet with school and city officials.

Seeing that the plan was already in the implementation phase, with no hope of slowing it down for their input, residents’ frustration and skepticism intensified.

Strawberry Mansion’s four-year graduation rate of 36 percent jumped to 52 percent in 2017. Although still low, the rate increased more than any other District school last year.There was no response from the District officials at the meeting to that fact.

“Too long, too often, we’ve been told what’s coming into our community instead of being asked for input on what’s coming into our community,” said Emmanuel Bussie, a longtime resident of North Philadelphia. “For you to be in the implementation phase is unacceptable and it’s disrespectful. And it’s dismissive of the residents of Philadelphia for you to be implementing something in our community without our vote.”

Coalition lays out a way to raise $191 million a year

The activists who were central to the dissolution of the School Reform Commission want to raise at least $191 million a year for Philadelphia’s public schools by closing tax loopholes for corporations and real estate developers and raising tax revenue from the city’s wealthiest. And they have a plan to do it.

The coalition began its campaign in March with a protest at the University of Pennsylvania. Students, teachers, activists, and alumni flooded a University Council meeting, demanding that Penn make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to help fund the city’s schools. After all, they said, the university does not pay city property taxes and it has an endowment of over $10 billion.

Penn and Columbia are the only Ivy League universities that don’t make these payments. “For so many years, giant corporations and developers have avoided paying their taxes, and we know with the new Trump tax bill, it’s only going to get worse,” said Antione Little, a central organizer with the Our City Our Schools coalition. “Our funding proposal would raise a billion dollars for our schools over the next five years without raising taxes on working people.”

A report, Proposal for Equitable School Funding in 2018, was written by the Our City Our Schools coalition, which was formed when more than 20 organizations came together to demand an end to the School Reform Commission. It includes activists, community nonprofits, and labor unions.

The report proposes four main sources of revenue, which would total $191 million annually — and if property values were updated to match fair market value, it says, that could drive the revenue as high as $301 million annually.

Jessica Way, a Penn graduate who teaches at the Franklin Learning Center in Fairmount, drew cheers at the protest when she said the schools need more money to give students the education they deserve.

She said the $191 million in annual revenue comes to $892,523 for each of the 214 District-run schools. “That’s enough to purchase one counselor, one librarian, five teachers and two secretaries at every single school,” Way said. “We don’t need another computer program that makes things more efficient for our teachers. We need people!”

The proposal includes payments from large, tax-exempt universities and hospitals. These institutions are amonthe biggest owners of the city’s $13.6 billion in tax-exempt property, according to the report (based on a 2017 analysis in the Inquirer).

The plan would also raise $54 million a year by postponing reductions in the business income and receipts tax and $35 million a year by marginally raising the use and occupancy tax, which applies to property owners and landlords whose real estate is used for business, rather than housing. The report says taxes dropped $16 million on the city’s 10 largest landlords as a result of a 2014 reassessment of property values.

The coalition also wants to end the city’s 10-year tax abatement, which exempts property taxes for that period on higher values that result from renovation, new construction, or expansion.

Gun violence summit grapples with next steps
Sixth grader Samantha Sandhaus’ question was so innocent and logical that, for one brief moment, it silenced two seasoned politicians.

Why, the 12-year-old wondered, if the city of Philadelphia can’t legally make laws to curb access to guns, then “why doesn’t the federal government do it?”

Ah, why indeed? That’s what the look that crossed the faces of State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) and City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson seemed to say. The two had been tapped to deliver a primer on gun laws at #PHLYouthTalks: Gun Violence from Parkland to Philly, a gathering at South Philadelphia High School.

The session took place three days after an anti-gun-violence march in Center City and it drew about 80 people, half of them students. They listened to the politicians, including Mayor Kenney, before dividing into smaller sessions on trauma, creating safe spaces, and anti-violence programs — all in response to the Valentine’s Day shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Harris gamely took the first stab at answering Sandhaus’ question, talking about finding ways to shut off people’s access to guns. Johnson chimed in, urging Sandhaus and others to mobilize against the National Rifle Association.

“No child should worry about being shot in school,” the mayor had said earlier, pointing out that “so many students grow up with violence and trauma that they don’t know any other way to deal with it but to get stuck in that cycle themselves.”

Johnson and Harris outlined the city’s record of gun violence — pointing out that Philadelphia ranks second among major U.S. cities in the percentage of homicides caused by guns. They urged people to get involved in anti-violence groups. They advised students to learn about signs that classmates might be struggling with mental issues and to take their concerns to adults.

And they said that although they respect the activism of the Parkland students, they want to see some of the same outrage in response to the daily gun violence that claims the lives of black and brown people in Philadelphia.

But nothing they said seemed to really address what was on Sandhaus’ mind. A student at New Foundations Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia, she said she’s afraid. “You don’t want to go to school, [worrying that] this is our last day,” she said.

She defined trauma as “the fear in the back of your head. You can’t escape the fear and you feel like it might happen again.”

About three-quarters of the 25 or so people in this session raised their hands when asked whether they knew someone or had heard of someone who had been involved in gun violence.

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