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Penn students demand that the university pay PILOTs

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

Under the looming statue of Benjamin Franklin, with umbrellas shielding them from the rain, about 50 people gathered on the University of Pennsylvania campus Thursday to demand that the university contribute Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) to the City of Philadelphia to help fund public schools.

The rally was organized by the labor coalition Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, the student group Penn Student Power, and the Our City Our Schools coalition, of which Penn Student Power is a part. A university-dispatched Open Expression Monitor – an observer trained to make sure free speech guidelines are being upheld – stood about 100 feet away, at the top of the College Hall stairs, protected from the rain by an awning. Rally organizers handed out plastic ponchos, and supporters clutched posters demanding, in all caps: “Penn Pay PILOTS.” The red and blue Penn ink was bleeding in rivulets down the paper from the rain.

First to speak was District teacher and Penn alumnus Louis Fantini, who pointed out that Penn, the largest private landowner in the city, does not meet the criteria for tax exemption, according to a 2012 ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “If this university wants to operate like a business, they need to pay tax like a business,” Fantini said, to raucous cheers.

Penn graduate Gina Dukes, who works at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, a Philadelphia special admission high school, spoke next. Dukes, who was born at the university’s hospital and grew up in West Philadelphia near 65th and Kingsessing Streets, said she was “always shocked” when she came to Penn’s campus and saw the disparity between it and where she lived.

“It’s crazy that there is an Ivy League institution in this city that has so many problems and broken schools,” she said.

Dukes expressed skepticism toward Penn’s Netter Center community service programs, which send undergraduates to tutor in Philadelphia schools.

“They could put their money where their mouth is and pay PILOTs,” Dukes said, to more cheers.

Penn is one of two Ivy League schools (the other is Columbia University in New York City) that do not contribute PILOTs to their locality. Advocates of PILOTs believe that large tax-exempt nonprofits should give voluntary payments to contribute to the cities where they operate. In Philadelphia, these payments would go to the School District, which is projected to have a deficit of $700 million by 2022.

The third speaker, Penn freshman Dallas Ryan, was also born in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and grew up in West Philadelphia. “I never felt that I could be a student at Penn,” Ryan said. “My mom always joked that you could tell where Penn stopped and the rest of the city started by the way the buildings looked.”

Ryan brought up last year’s revelation in a Philadelphia Inquirer series last year that toxic asbestos fibers were found in a city elementary school closet where 5th graders stored their lunches and backpacks. The levels were 50 times higher than those found in settled dust in apartments near ground zero after 9/11. Ryan said that PILOTs from Penn could be a vital source of funding to fix such problems in Philadelphia public schools.

Offering a hypothetical address to the University’s board of trustees, Ryan asked, “Are you comforted by your $14 billion [endowment] in the face of a 6-year-old with lead poisoning so severe he can’t concentrate in math class?”

The fourth speaker was Central High School student Abby Leedy, whose voice shook as she said that although Central is one of the best-funded schools in Philadelphia, she has found cockroaches in the bathrooms, and she is struggling in her algebra class because her textbook is 30 years old and missing a chapter’s worth of pages.

“It’s impossible to get an education when your school is full of lead and your teachers don’t know your name,” she said.

Leedy is in Penn’s Young Scholars Program, which allows high school juniors and seniors to take classes at the university, and she attended Penn Alexander Elementary School, serving grades K-8, which was founded and subsidized by the university. But, she said, these programs are an inadequate contribution to the city’s public school system.

“I’m lucky my parents were rich and white,” Leedy said, referring to growing up within the prestigious school’s catchment area, where housing prices have skyrocketed as a result of the school’s presence. “Services in lieu of taxes are not enough. I say that as a Penn Alexander alum and a Young Scholar. That is a Band-Aid on a huge, gushing, lead-infected wound.”

Longtime Penn Hillel dining hall employee and labor activist Troy Harris spoke next. Like most of the other speakers, he is a West Philadelphia local. Harris has worked at Penn for 19 years and said he was underpaid until 2013, when workers successfully campaigned for a union with support from the Penn Student Labor Action Project coalition. Harris said that “the student power behind us” during the campaign was essential to bargaining a contract and that he sees the same possibility for change in the campaign for Penn to pay PILOTs.

“There’s so much money generated here that can help,” Harris said. “If this takes rallying once a week, we have to do it.”

After listening to the speeches, Penn senior Adamseged Abebe emerged from the crowd to ask the organizers whether he could say a few words, too. Abebe explained to the crowd that he was an international student from Ethiopia and had taken several Academically Based Community Service courses through the Netter Center and even worked as a teaching assistant there. The conclusion he has come to after four years of involvement, he said, is that “it’s not a mutual benefit.”

Although Penn students who tutor in public schools may go on to get PhDs, Abebe asked, “What are the schools gaining in return?”

Abebe pointed out that undergraduates are not sent to tutor at the Penn Alexander School, only graduate students from the Graduate School of Education, who are significantly more trained and specialized in the task at hand. “Why is Penn not demanding the same level of commitment for any other schools?”

Abebe reiterated the previous speakers’ demand for PILOTs and said that “services in lieu of taxes” were an insufficient contribution. “The Netter Center is really not effective.”

Devan Spear, the executive director of Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, co-organized the rally. Spear, a Penn graduate, campaigned for the university to contribute PILOTs while she was an undergraduate and said she “personally witnessed the ways in which Penn was impacting the surrounding West Philadelphia community, and the Philadelphia community at large, and not taking responsibility for the negative impacts.

“Having experienced firsthand where Penn’s priorities are, in terms of paying for extremely fancy new dorms that are also tax-exempt, it seemed really obvious to me that the only right thing to do was for Penn to come to the table with the city and negotiate a fair Payments in Lieu of Taxes program.” Spear said.

Stephen J. MacCarthy, Penn’s vice president for communications, said in an email that “service is a key element of both the Penn Compact and the University’s mission. Through our community engagement initiatives, Penn actively supports the Philadelphia School District, not only in West Philadelphia but in every catchment area in the city: our Graduate School of Education, other Penn Schools, and the Penn Museum have over 500 activities going on in 248 schools in every catchment area throughout the District.”

MacCarthy cited the “tens and thousands of hours of community support through the Netter Center and other campus offices” as another example of “Penn’s extensive involvement in the economic and social welfare of our great City.”

“We believe that the depth of Penn’s financial commitment and the breadth of programs we support has proven to be far more impactful than PILOTS have been in any city where they have been attempted.” MacCarthy wrote.

After the last speaker, Spear shouted a call-and-response to the crowd, growing louder with every chant: “What do we want?” “PILOTs!” “When do we want ‘em?” “NOW!”

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