The Purpose of PILOTs: Central Alum at UPenn

By Natalie Margasak (284)

The most beautiful classroom you will find in Central is one with painted ceiling tiles. The paint conceals the flaking white bits of fiberboard and yellow water damage under the creative work of students who preceded us and are long into adulthood. Despite the energy that students and teachers put into classroom decor, Central’s meager budget finds a way to reveal itself’ like when a tile commemorating the AP Euro class of 276 spun down from the ceiling followed by a snow-like trail of dust and landed on a student’s desk. Though the momentary shock of the class faded, the hole in the ceiling remains.

Central has “no nurses on given days [and] six counselors for 2,400 kids.” At a press conference held in September by the Fossil Free Penn club, Kenny Chiu, a current sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, and a graduate of the 280th class at Central, said, every classroom is shared by “thirty-two other students,” The Fossil Free Penn club fights for Penn to pay PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, in addition to other goals. Penn is the largest private employer and private property owner in Philadelphia. Due to its status as a non-profit organization, it is exempt from paying the same property taxes that public schools, including Central, rely on. 

This year, 149 of the freshmen at Penn are from Philadelphia. One of them is Lily Brenner, a 281 graduate who grew up seeing “Penn’s impact on the surrounding area” from her home in West Philadelphia. She attended Penn Alexander for elementary and middle school, located right on the outskirts of Penn’s campus. For each student enrolled at PAS, Penn donates 1,330 dollars. Penn also agreed to donate one million for the next five years to Henry C. Lea Elementary, just blocks away. Penn uses these schools as an example of its positive impact on Philadelphia. People like Chiu and Brenner say that in reality, these contracts are just ways of gentrifying the neighborhood surrounding the campus and creating more economic division in the city as a whole. Like many schools, Central does not benefit from Penn’s arrangements. As a member of Central’s robotics team, Brenner felt that difference, noticing that “better funding, better mentorship, and better machines” resulted in other schools fielding a more successful team. Despite Central sponsorships, alumni funding, and great success, the team’s budget was tighter than most. 

Brenner is one of few students at Penn with this kind of experience because “not a lot of people here come from public school, particularly not [schools] in major urban areas.” The application process is grueling for most, but the essay prompts and SAT scores cause “huge amounts of income disparity” to be coded as merit. Dr. Gerald Campano, a professor of international education and literacy at Penn is “inspired by students such as Kenny and Lily who are fighting for a more just education for future generations.” He agrees that “schools often reproduce social inequities and oppression,” and this affects “predominately black, brown, and immigrant students in the school district.”

Penn legally owes nothing to schools like Central. This leads to people’s demanding that Penn pay PILOTs, “forty percent of what it would otherwise pay in property taxes” says Dr. Campano. Poorly funded schools are a root cause of the city’s many problems, but schools should be the solution, serving as “centers of our communities,” said Chiu. 

PILOTs could open opportunities in the world of education and transform Philadelphia schools from ranking forty-fourth in the state, in school funding, a “vehicle for more life opportunities and self-empowerment for youth and families,” said Dr. Campano. The students of the district do not deserve to suffer due to inadequate funding. Penn has the opportunity to take the first step toward economic and racial justice in education, through paying PILOTs. 

Central students have the power to create change and can use their unique experiences in many different learning settings to find and fix injustices in the world of education. As Dr. Campano says, “You have power; you have agency; you know your own experiences in schools, and you are best positioned to envision a better future, including [your] education. Everyone else should be there to support you every step of the way.” 

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