Community benefit agreements could help Philly's public education system

Illustration by Mike L. Perry

Illustration by Mike L. Perry

Building Up Our Kids

by Dan LaSalle

As a teacher in Philadelphia’s public school system, I know that deep within our overcrowded and underfunded Philadelphia schools, a hunger for glory grows loud if you listen. I watch hundreds of city chess teams turn to a nonprofit for the funding and organization of weekend tournaments. I sit alongside debate teams that ride public transportation before dawn, past the hotel rooms of their private-school competitors. They also ride past multi-million dollar development projects given tax breaks and incentives, while their own schools sit in disrepair.

These hardworking students are forced to find life-defining academic experiences outside of their schools, in crucial programs that help them discover their unique brilliance and character. We must learn from our city’s most resolute students and find a way not just to survive but thrive. 

Waiting for relief from Harrisburg has never been fruitful. We need to create local opportunities while we simultaneously fight for larger reform. How? Community benefit agreements (CBAs): a clever legal and development strategy that has worked well in cities across the country.

The idea is simple. When developers seek approval from local governing boards to begin a project, they must select and improve a struggling area of a city or else forgo their development. Since Philadelphia abates millions of tax dollars to help businesses unleash skyscrapers and plazas, it is only reasonable to ask those same beneficiaries to contribute directly back to marginalized areas of the city in order to create sustainable change for everyone. These agreements are legally binding and put power in the hands of those often ignored by development.

Examples from around the country show us the possibilities. In 2001, Columbia University began to invest $7 billion into a West Harlem expansion, but New Yorkers feared that just as many who would gain safety by this expansion would lose homes or quickly be forced to relocate. The city board, City Planning Commission and City Council negotiated with Columbia University resulting in $30 million for a new school, $20 million for affordable housing, $44 million to subsidize legal aid for low-income residents, and then an additional $76 million to be spent in a way decided by the community. Not only did low-income residents see quality change in their neighborhood, they were given the financial and legal means to create it.

Similarly, on May 29, 2001, L.A. Live signed with the city of Los Angeles to build the Staples Center arena for the Lakers, but only after contractually guaranteeing community centers, job training programs, local hiring, park renovations and $650,000 interest-free loans to nonprofits. In 2006, Minneapolis estimated 27 percent of its population lacked home Internet, so the city, a wireless media company and more than a dozen nonprofits signed a CBA to offer free Internet access computers to qualified low-income residents, computer-literacy training programs, and free or reduced-price Internet access to select public facilities and nonprofits.

Existing programs to partner with our underfunded schools already exist: One hundred and fifty-five community centers offer a total of 83 different recreational and academic nonschool day programs, from aquatics to Zumba. Fifty-six Philadelphia public libraries provide almost 27,000 combined programs for adults and children. We have a dozen community health clinics. Even modest corporate donations can pipeline available nonprofit services into already open and staffed public facilities to increase the number of opportunities and citizens served. 

Already, we have seen CBAs help Philadelphia. SugarHouse Casino’s development provided public transportation and union construction jobs. Philadelphia Healthcare Properties offered commercial space for local business and cemetery beautification. CBAs require neither legal precedent nor economic genius, just a collective expectation from an entire city that these negotiations and collaborations should occur. 

The next step should be legislation from City Council mandating these partnerships, which would give communities standing to negotiate with developers for future city construction. 

Detroit may soon demand CBAs for any development that either exceeds a set cost or accepts a certain amount in public subsidies. Why shouldn’t Philadelphia, the home of the nation’s first hospital, medical school and zoo, become the first city to require every major development corporation to partner with a public or charter school and public service to contractually promise a specific community benefit? And why couldn’t that project be decided by the community to be served? 

Philadelphia’s diversity of available infrastructure makes our city an opportune place to encourage and expect CBAs to benefit every school. 

Mayor Jim Kenney campaigned on creating community schools. To deliver on that promise, he should require corporations to collaborate with nonprofits, our 218 public schools and 83 charter schools to combine resources and cater to community needs.

We must reclaim brotherhood in the City of Brotherly Love by empowering community-centered development, so that our schools and neighborhoods can better support those tenacious students who remind us we can flourish when we make our own opportunities. 

Dan LaSalle is an English teacher and debate coach at Olney Charter High School. He writes about the psychology of student motivation and runs the blog teachtoimpassion.com