As dozens of new candidates for City Council secure their places on the ballot for Philly’s May 21st election, one question facing them all is how they will ensure the safety of millions of children who spend their days in toxic school buildings. As teachers of these children, we would like to propose one very clear answer: End the ten-year tax abatement.
Last week, the Caucus of Working Educators delivered to Board of Education members over three thousand signatures on a petition demanding an end to the tax abatement in order to fund repairs to school buildings. We will be delivering that petition to City Council members on April 15. This petition represents over 3,000 face-to-face conversations with educators, parents, and community members, over 3,000 people ready to take action to end the tax abatement and fight for the safe schools that our students deserve. On March 29, after we handed in our petition, we were pleased to see leadership from state and local politicians pledging to find the $170 million to fund our facilities.
The ten-year tax abatement has been in effect for over twenty years. It was originally set up to spur development, by allowing property owners to avoid paying School District and city taxes on new construction or renovations to buildings for 10 years. This policy has now cost the School District hundreds of millions of dollars. As the Caucus has said for years, by ending the tax abatement, we can invest vital resources into our school buildings.
Our students, mostly black and brown, are expected to learn in classrooms that pose serious risks to their health. Lead paint and the resultant dust can cause permanent cognitive damage. Stifling heat, mold, and rodent droppings exacerbate asthma, a cause of suffering and absenteeism among school children in Philadelphia. These conditions would never be allowed to continue in suburban or majority-white school districts. As teachers, we refuse to remain silent while our students are trapped in toxic buildings.
Last spring, after we packed City Hall to decry the toxic conditions in our schools and demand safe schools for our students, Governor Wolf and Mayor Kenney announced $15 million in additional funding for lead remediation in 40 district schools. But 40 schools in a district of 217 schools is not enough.
At Janene’s school in South Philly, toxic lead paint is a still dangerous problem. Until recently, she was unaware that this was a pervasive district issue. In her classroom, she unknowingly exposed children to toxic lead dust by storing hands-on materials on the windowsills. She was both pregnant and pumped breast milk in her classroom without knowing the risks to her unborn child, who is now almost two and has tested positive for some lead exposure. Janene now treats working in her classroom as a hazard: She changes her clothes before going home and nursing her toddler, covers all of her classroom materials stored on the windowsill, has purchased a costly air purifier, and uses a mask while cleaning. The lead dust is only one hazard; leaks, flooding, and unbearably hot and cold temperatures also plague her school.
According to Inquirer reporting, Philly schools lost $62 million in revenue in 2017 to tax abatements. When a developer decides to build a luxury home or condo, the city grants them ten years of tax-free status for that property. This means real estate developers are able to raise the prices of new homes and line their own pockets with the profits. Meanwhile, our schools are starved of tax revenue they desperately need. Allowing it to continue has real impacts on children in our city. Although they may never have heard of the ten-year tax abatement, our children see what we value by the money we spend.
When Kathleen’s students walk to school in West Philadelphia, they see that the old West Philadelphia High School is being transformed into luxury apartments. They see the fresh paint, the young trees, the new windows, the clean sidewalks. And when they arrive to school just down the street, they see the stark difference. Leaky ceilings, broken plumbing, and flaking paint. This juxtaposition of massive investment in one building and severe neglect in another sends the message that we only invest in school buildings once the children have been cleared out.
As citizens of Philadelphia, we have the power to change the message we are sending to our kids. Instead of giving our tax dollars away to wealthy real estate developers, we can end the ten-year tax abatement and invest in the safe schools Philly’s children deserve.