To Mayor Nutter: Close Delinquent Properties, Not Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Instead of cutting badly needed school personnel and resources, Mayor Nutter should crack down on the city’s deadbeats who owe $472 million in delinquent property taxes. 

Despite laying-off teachers, nurses, school police officers and teacher aids, freezing salaries, cutting athletics, and shutting down after-school activities, the Philadelphia School District continues to struggle financially. 

Thomas Knudsen, the School District’s Chief Recovery Officer (who makes $25,000 a month), recently announced that the District faces a $218 million deficit for the 2012-13 school year, and that if Mayor Nutter’s new property-tax proposal does not pass City Council, the District may not open in the fall.

“It is not clear that we could, in fact, open schools this fall,” Knudsen said.

Nutter’s new property tax proposal, nicknamed “Actual Value Initiative,” would serve to reassess properties across Philadelphia and adjust taxes to an “actual” or current rate.  In theory, this is supposed to bring in an additional $94 million to the School District. 

But Nutter’s property tax reassessment plan is only a drop in the bucket, and continues to put the burden on hard working middle class citizens.  His plan does little to go after deadbeats who refuse to pay their fair share of property taxes, and does not adequately address the problem of vacant buildings. 

In August of last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer did a series on Philadelphia’s delinquent-property-tax collection system titled, “The Delinquency Crisis.”  In a report headlined “Taxes wither on the vine,” the Inquirer wrote:

Philadelphia runs the least-effective delinquent-property-tax collection system of the nation’s biggest cities, a system that has created a “culture of nonpayment” and cost the city and cash-strapped School District $472 million in unpaid real estate taxes, penalties, and interest.

It is a delinquency epidemic that reaches from Chestnut Hill to Point Breeze, infecting every neighborhood. In all, there are nearly 111,000 delinquent properties, or about 19 percent of all parcels in Philadelphia, according to an Inquirer and PlanPhilly.com analysis of city data.

The past-due properties include such pricey parcels as the proposed Foxwoods casino site, an Old City art gallery, a South Philadelphia hotel, and choice real estate a block off Rittenhouse Square.

But it is in low-income neighborhoods where the delinquency crisis has peaked and where the city’s response has been the least effective. . . .

According to the Inquirer report, Philadelphia has more tax deadbeats per property than any other big city in the country.  Here are some facts highlighted in the report

  • The delinquent tax problem has grown under the Nutter administration.  In May 2009, there were just over 100,000 tax-delinquent properties in Philadelphia. On April 30, 2011, the count had risen to nearly 111,000.
  • Tens of thousands of parcels are never subjected to any enforcement action beyond sternly worded letters from the city Revenue Department.
  • The city’s typical tax delinquent is 6.5 years behind and owes $4,249 in taxes, penalties, and interest.
  • 26,000 properties are at least a decade behind, and the owners of nearly 8,500 properties haven’t paid a dime for 20 years or more.
  • According to city records, the largest delinquent, owing $6.1 million in principal, penalties, and interest on five unpaid years including 2011, is Roman Philadelphia Property L.L.C. at 1499 S. Columbus Blvd., site of the potential Foxwoods casino.
  • Cumulatively, the city’s delinquent properties are 720,000 years behind in taxes.

Of the delinquent properties, Frank S. Alexander, a law professor at Emory University and a leading national authority on improving property-tax collection systems, told the Inquirer:  “That’s an astronomical level of delinquency. It is phenomenally high.  Those numbers tell you there is a very high rate of nonenforcement. It means that the city has made a decision not to go after these properties.”

Mayor Nutter may not be going after these tax deadbeats, but he is going after schools.  Nutter and Knudsen have targeted teachers, nurses, custodians, school police officers, noontime aids, cafeteria staff, athletic coaches, after-school activity sponsors, art programs, music programs, and unions, among others, in an effort to balance the School District’s budget, all of which will have a negative impact on learning. 

Not surprisingly, Nutter and Knudsen are now implementing scare tactics—à la Arleen Ackerman and the Great Full-Day Kindergarten Crisis—suggesting that schools may not be able to open in the fall.  Not unless, ahem, the School District’s five unions cough-up $156 million in givebacks, and Philadelphia’s hard working citizens (who actually pay their taxes) submit to another property tax increase.

It’s time for Mayor Nutter to get his priorities straight and make an honest effort to recover the $472 million owed to the city.  He must take the high road and finally confront the city’s tax cheats instead of balancing the School District budget on the backs of hard working citizens and their children.

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District should mandate after school activities instead of extending school day

by Christopher Paslay

 

It’s no secret that Philadelphia School District officials want to extend the length of the school day.  Increased instructional time was a high priority on Dr. Ackerman’s recent “wishlist” for the District. 

 

Although I don’t agree that more is always better, research shows that keeping kids in school longer improves tests scores and keeps them out of harm’s way.  KIPP Philadelphia Charter School is a case in point.  They operate under an extended school day and school year, and their PSSA test scores are well above the Philadelphia School District average.      

 

However, extending the school day has its drawbacks with staff.  Teacher turnover at KIPP is high, and compensating instructors for the long hours is difficult (many teachers work 10 to 12 hours days when you factor in lesson planning and assessment); the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers fought the increased school day in the past because the District wasn’t willing to pay for the extra time.

 

But there is a solution to the problem.  The District can extend the time students spend in programs without placing this extra burden on the teachers. 

 

Instead of extending the length of the school day, the District should mandate after school activities for all its students.  And the District could use ASAP (After School Activities Partnerships) as a partner.  To quote ASAP’s website, “An estimated 45,000 kids citywide spend between 20-25 hours a week alone after school – with the most dangerous hours between 3 pm and 6 pm. These unsupervised young people are much more likely to be the victims of crime or become involved in risky behaviors. Additionally, lack of after school activity could be contributing to the rise in overweight children. Recent reports that Philadelphia has both the highest crime and poverty rates of the ten largest cities in the nation provide strong impetus for improving the lives of the city’s kids.”

 

ASAP has already served 15,773 Philadelphia youth to date, and organized 1,210 clubs (primarily volunteer-led in schools, recreation centers and libraries).

 

“Research shows that after-school programs deter negative behaviors while improving achievement and attendance,” said Maria Walker and Marciene Mattleman in an opinion piece in today’s Inquirer headlined, Enrich children and the city with after-school programs.    

 

In their article, Walker and Mattleman also noted ASAP’s ability to get students involved in playing chess.  “The Chess Challenge is ASAP’s centerpiece initiative, with more than 3,500 kids playing in schools, libraries, recreation and community centers, shelters, and the Youth Study Center,” they noted.  “Studies show that chess teaches strategic thinking. School administrators say young chess players are more likely to see the consequences of their actions and avoid risky behaviors.” 

 

Mandating after school activities would be a win-win for everybody.  Much of ASAP is run by volunteers and funded by donations, so the District wouldn’t have to pay extra money.  ASAP could be supplemented by athletic programs run by schools in the District, where coaches would be compensated for their time.      

 

The District could start small and work its way up.  Students could be given the option of whether they wanted to participate in fall, winter or spring activities.  They’d have the choice of playing a varsity or intramural sport, or joining a club.  This would surely increase participation in athletics and extra curricular activities within the District, programs already established and funded by the District. 

 

At midnight on August 31st of this year, when the Philadelphia Federation of Teacher’s contract extension is up, I can guarantee a sticking point of negotiations will be extending the length of the school day.  If the District opts to mandate after school activities instead of increasing an already lengthy school day (and doing so without properly compensating teachers and instructional staff), then a new contract just might be ironed out sooner rather than later.