‘We consider this a first victory’: Penn professors see university gift as important step for funding Philadelphia schools  

‘We consider this a first victory’: Penn professors see university gift as important step for funding Philadelphia schools  

Professor Ann Farnsworth-Alvear hopes a $100 million donation from the University of Pennsylvania to the city’s school district will only be the beginning of a longer conversation about how to properly fund schools.
She along with other Penn professors had pushed for months for their school to pay up to $40 million to the city. The money, known as payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOTS, represents a portion of what the university would owe in taxes if not for its nonprofit status.
“It’s time for Philadelphia to find a way to ensure that schools have the funding they need to educate children,” Farnsworth-Alvear, an associate professor of history and Latin American and Latino studies said.
Penn’s gift is the largest single private donation to the district ever. Amy C. Offner, an associate professor in the department of history, said the money is “evidence that mobilization by students, teachers, parents, city officials, and the Penn community are moving our university in the right direction. We consider this a first victory — but just a first step.”
But the professors still argue that local wealthy property owners, like Penn, should be pressed to ensure the city’s schools are fully funded.
“I measure ‘enough’ by looking at the value of properties owned by the University of Pennsylvania and other nonprofits,” Farnsworth-Alvear, said. “What taxes would be paid if non-profit status did not apply? Do people in Philadelphia want to continue to subsidize such non-profit entities?”
Penn President Amy Gutmann said on Wednesday the “historic commitment by the university and Penn Medicine will help support a most critical and immediate need that will benefit generations of Philadelphia students, their teachers, and school staff.”
Farnsworth-Alvear measures if the 10-year funding is enough by looking at the value of properties owned by the Penn and other nonprofits.
“Realizing that city residents subsidize nonprofits in Philadelphia is my starting point for what I hope will be a broad public discussion,” over 10 years, when the money will be distributed to schools, she added.
Many universities benefitted from the labor of enslaved people, and exploited research agendas and supported gentrification, said Gerald Campano, professor and chair of the literacy, culture, and international education division at the Graduate School of Education at Penn.
“I hope this first step by the university will lead to both local and national conversations about the unconscionable inequities in the school system and the role of higher education in addressing them,” he said.
An institution as wealthy as Penn can afford to rise to this standard, and must do so to help resolve the chronic, structural underfunding of the city’s public schools, Offner said.
One of the reasons the Penn contribution was so significant was the district had requested $120 million from the state that would allow leaders over the next several years to make all buildings asbestos and lead safe, said Superintendent William Hite on Thursday.
Earlier this year, local education and government officials had requested money from the state to help repair the district’s buildings. That demand has fallen flat.
“We’ve done a good bit of work while school buildings have been closed,” Hite said. “So that number is closer to $100 million,” Hite said. “So over the next 10 years we plan to use that money for specific purposes and that is lead abatement and asbestos remediation.”
Donna Frisby-Greenwood, CEO of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, said district fundraising has not been affected during the pandemic compared with past years.
“When COVID first broke out, we thought, oh my gosh, we are not going to be able to raise a lot of money this year,” she said. But in the spring, when “the district needed … Chromebooks for every student, — we raised 7.5 million dollars from donors locally in Philadelphia.”
But Offner said although Penn’s gift will make a significant difference in helping the district remove asbestos and lead from school buildings, more is still needed for the schools.
“If every child in Philadelphia is to receive a quality public education, the school district needs a reliable, significant stream of revenue every year — not time-limited gifts targeted to acute crises,” Offner said.

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