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A Public Health Crisis in Our Schools: How PILOTs help



It must have been at least 80 degrees in the classroom that afternoon. The school was not air conditioned, and Philadelphia was in the middle of a heat wave, but school was starting soon, and the classroom needed to be ready. My mother had bought a floor fan for me, one of the many “contributions to the cause” she had made during my teaching career; it was blowing in the corner and providing some merciful relief from the heat. Unfortunately, it also magnified the smell of the yet-to-be-discovered dead mouse in my classroom. Finding it was a task I was not thrilled to add to my arm’s length to-do list. I felt nauseated and unable to eat from the heat, but the stress of starting a new year and meeting my new first-grade students in four days was enough to keep me going for at least seven more hours. At least I had the cool relief from the setting sun to look forward to.

These conditions are not unfamiliar to many teachers in the Philadelphia area, and unfortunately, they are some of the better conditions teachers and students in Philadelphia face. Most Philadelphia schools do not have air conditioning, a public health issue in and of itself as global warming pushes temperatures higher each year. But there are more concerning health dangers: more than 80% of Philadelphia schools have damaged asbestos [1]; 2016-2017 district lead testing indicated half of Philadelphia School District elementary schools had at least one water outlet with unsafe lead levels [2]; and, the combination of rodent and cockroach dander and droppings, mold, and poorly-maintained ventilation creates an unsafe breathing environment, especially for students and staff with allergies and asthma [3].

Our school district is in a state of disrepair due to old buildings in need of major restoration, but concerns about staffing, proper student services, and closing schools also plague the district due to state funding cuts and a tight budget. The money they have can only go so far.

I left teaching after four years because I felt like my hands were tied. I felt like my influence stopped at the classroom door. I saw students and families facing trauma and living conditions that I could not even imagine. How were my students expected to learn how to read when they were hungry? How could they grasp adding and subtracting when they were working in an overheated classroom? How were we, as teachers, expected to mitigate all the concerns of our students and advocate for change while working multiple jobs to cover the cost of classroom supplies and our own living needs?

Over the course of two years, I considered my options and made the difficult decision to leave teaching and go back to school to work towards medical school, in the hopes of returning to serve in the areas I once taught.

Today, as a second-year medical student, I still think about my students, I still question my decision to leave teaching, and despite the unbelievable rigors of medical school, I still have not faced anything as challenging as teaching in Philadelphia.

The world I have entered is vastly different and vastly more privileged compared to the world I left. Medical universities and their affiliates make up a large portion of the top 25 largest nonprofits in Philadelphia [4], which is probably not news to most Philadelphians. Philadelphia is, after all, known for its “Eds and Meds” economy, and education and medical jobs make up a substantial portion of its economy. What many Philadelphians may not know is that these “Eds and Meds” nonprofits and their affiliates gross millions, if not billions, of dollars and have cumulative assets worth billions of dollars [5].

It’s time to recognize we are not silos in this city of brotherly love; we are members of the Philadelphia community and therefore have the responsibility to help our community survive.

But these massively wealthy organizations are exempt from paying property taxes, which are a significant portion of the School District’s revenue. Non-profit organizations like hospitals and universities, as well as government-owned properties, are exempt from property taxes, per state law. While government properties account for about 40% of the tax-exempt properties, nonprofits account for the rest of the properties, with educational institutions owning about 25% of the value of tax-exempt properties, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer [6]. Although that 25% includes the School District of Philadelphia property as well, there is clearly a difference between the crumbling, unsafe infrastructure of many Philadelphia schools and the expansive real estate owned by Philadelphia universities.

Enter PILOTs, or Payments in Lieu of Taxes, a solution that would have universities and hospitals pay a portion of their foregone property taxes. Millions of dollars could be generated, even if only the top five wealthiest nonprofits in Philadelphia paid 40% of their waived property taxes. Organizations like Philadelphia Jobs with Justice are advocating for PILOTs to be contributed to a publicly controlled Education Equity Fund that would direct PILOT-generated funding towards the Philadelphia public school system. The end result would be a publicly administered fund with community input for the school district to use towards necessary projects, like renovating its unsafe infrastructure and remediating environmental hazards.

So far, though, despite the urging of their respective students, faculty, alumni, and community members, no University has stepped up to pledge their commitment to the PILOTs program. Some universities are even attempting to suppress PILOTs-specific activism on their campuses [7].

It doesn’t seem right: universities and health organizations that are dedicated to the well-being of the people of Philadelphia are turning a blind eye to the public health crisis in the city’s schools. Medical students learn about the impact of social determinants of health, while the institution dictating the curriculum ignores the potential impact it could have on these very determinants.

Our public schools are suffering, and our universities can help heal this suffering. These mega non-profit universities, which also train our future health professionals to serve the health of their community, must stand by their mission statements. It’s time to recognize we are not silos in this city of brotherly love; we are members of the Philadelphia community and therefore have the responsibility to help our community survive. Our influence can and must extend beyond the lecture halls and exam rooms and into the classrooms of the School District of Philadelphia.

 

Author: Casey Swann

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any organization with which I am affiliated.

References:

1. Ruderman W, Laker B, Purcell D. Dangerous asbestos levels could pose risks to students, teachers in Philadelphia schools. https://www.inquirer.com/news/inq/asbestos-testing-mesothelioma-cancer-philadelphia-schools-toxic-city-20180510.html. Published May 10, 2018. Accessed October 3, 2020.

2. Laker B, Ruderman W, Purcell D. Children face potential poisoning from lead, mold, asbestos in Philadelphia schools, investigation shows. https://www.inquirer.com/news/inq/lead-paint-poison-children-asbestos-mold-schools-philadelphia-toxic-city-20180503.html. Published May 3, 2018. Accessed October 3, 2020.

3. Laker B, Ruderman W, Purcell D. Toxic city: see how much lead, asbestos and mold is in Philadelphia schools. https://media.inquirer.com/toxic-city/lead-poisoning-paint-asbestos-mold-asthma-philadelphia-schools-map-search-tool.html. Accessed October 3, 2020.

4. Zeglen J. The 25 biggest nonprofits in Philadelphia - Generocity Philly. Generocity.org. Published May 15, 2017. https://generocity.org/philly/2017/05/15/25-biggest-largest-nonprofits-incorporated-philadelphia-penn/. Accessed October 3, 2020.

5. Candid. GuideStar. GuideStar. http://Guidestar.org. Accessed October 3, 2020.

6. McCrystal L. $29.6 billion of Philly real estate is exempt from property taxes. Should nonprofits be asked to pay up? https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia-nonprofit-exempt-property-tax-pilots-penn-aramark-20190930.html. Published September 27, 2019. Accessed October 3, 2020.

7. Thomas J. Penn board of trustees refuses to meet with Faculty and staff on payments to public schools. https://www.pennforpilots.org/press/press-release-penn-board-of-trustees-refuses-to-meet-with-faculty-and-staff-on-payments-to-public-schools. Published September 18, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2020.

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