Tuesday’s Notebook fundraiser comes on a busy day for education activism

Press conferences, demonstrations and a chance to reflect on a year of change in the Philadelphia education landscape.

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

On Tuesday, the Notebook is holding its annual fundraiser at 4:30 p.m. at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall, on what is turning out to be a packed afternoon of activities for educators and advocates.

Our City Our Schools, a coalition of education advocacy groups, will be honored at the event. The group pushed successfully for the dissolution of the School Reform Commission and returning the District to local control after 17 years.

Although the coalition consistently demands more revenue for the District, it has broken with the mayor on how best to raise the money, to the consternation of some other advocates.

Mayor Kenney has requested $770 million in new revenue over five years for the schools, primarily through a combination of a property tax rate hike and a slowdown in the planned reduction of the wage tax. An increase in the real estate transfer tax is expected to offset any reduction in tax revenue that results from raising the homestead exemption from $40,000 to $50,000.

Council is on board with the wage tax changes, as well as the tradeoff between the homestead exemption and transfer tax. But many members have been lukewarm to the idea of raising property tax rates, especially on top of a reassessment that is causing many homeowners’ tax bills to go up.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Public Citizens for Children & Youth and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, along with a few Council members, will hold a press conference citing a need for the city to step up.

At 4 p.m., Our City Our Schools will demonstrate in favor of more city revenue for the District, but against the mayor’s property tax hike. Instead, they propose an increase in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) from mega-nonprofits, including hospitals and universities, and an end to the property tax abatement for new construction, which primarily benefits developers and wealthy homeowners.

They are urging supporters to bring debris from schools, take pictures of deplorable classroom conditions, and wear face masks to illustrate the dangers of lead and other ongoing environmental hazards in the schools that have been highlighted in recent media reports.

“Our schools need significant investments … but we can’t just increase taxes on working people without looking at the developers, corporations, and universities who have evaded taxes for decades in our city. We’re demanding the end of the 10-year tax abatement once and for all,” said Antione Little, chair of the coalition.

Donna Cooper, executive director of PCCY, supports the property tax hike and disagrees with the coalition’s strategy.

“I think it is a strategy that doesn’t generate enough money for our schools and is likely to result in cuts,” said Cooper. Schools get 55 percent of property tax revenue, making it the single largest source of city money for the District. The proposed 4 percent hike would raise $143 million of Kenney’s $770 million package. The money will close a budget hole of $660 million and allow about $110 million for new investments.

Cooper said the coalition’s proposals would not raise the needed funds. Ending the property tax abatement, for instance, would take years to kick in. And the last time the city had PILOTs, it only raised $22 million a year, she said. The coalition put out a report citing much higher revenue figures.

Council members are especially reluctant to vote for a property tax hike because the District is forecasting slight fund balances for the next two years. It expects to achieve this, however, largely because of carryover funds from the past several years, not because its annual expected revenues are equal to its annual cost obligations. That “structural deficit,” for the most part, remains, although it will come into closer balance under Kenney’s plan.

Several Council members plan to appear at the PCCY and union event, including Helen Gym, Curtis Jones, Kenyatta Johnson, Cherelle Parker, and Cindy Bass.

“I think what [the Council members] are going to say is, we’re in there working hard and looking for a reasonable solution. We have only three weeks left [before Council must pass a budget],” Cooper said. “We’ve got to make a decision how we will come up with $143 million. That’s where all the education advocates should be, not this tax vs. that tax.”

Gym has introduced legislation that would end the School District’s portion of the tax abatements, which Cooper said was “good policy,” shielding it from bearing the brunt of the lost revenue.

“I think the issues of the abatements and the PILOTs are legitimate and still need conversation,” Cooper said. “There is no question we should be rolling back the scale of the abatements. Million-dollar homes with abatements is criminal, and we should fight that, but we shouldn’t hold the School District hostage in that fight.”

Meanwhile, the School District is holding events at different schools around the city to highlight ongoing and planned school renovations. Also tomorrow, Superintendent William Hite and Mayor Kenney will visit Solis-Cohen Elementary School in the Northeast, due for a new $50 million building.

The Our City Our Schools activists plan to leave the demonstration to receive an honor from the Notebook for their work on behalf of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren.

Also being honored at the Notebook event are longtime education supporters Debra Weiner and Mary Goldman. Student journalists from several city high schools will also receive awards for exemplary work during the year.

The Notebook’s fundraising event will be at the National Museum of American Jewish History, at Fifth and Market Streets. You can still buy tickets here.