A tax rebate? Some in Philly send it back

When Nadia Adawi received her $100 property-tax rebate from the Pennsylvania Treasury a few weeks ago, she decided to give it back.

The check's still sitting in her red-beaked wicker duck - a basket on her kitchen counter where she keeps her bills - but she's hoping to give it to Philadelphia's cash-strapped public schools.

"We don't have kids, we aren't committed to one public school, and I'd just as soon see this money go into a general fund," says Ms. Adawi, who lives with her husband in West Philly. "I'm sort of waiting to see what shakes out in terms of where's the best place to put this money."

"Give back the Giveback" is the rallying cry of hundreds of Pennsylvania taxpayers who, like Adawi, believe the state's public schools need the rebate money more than they do.

By signing their checks over to schools, these Pennsylvanians have become the latest example of Americans' sending cash to the classroom. From corporate donations to families helping a teacher purchase supplies, public schools are increasingly becoming one of the country's favorite charities. The Pennsylvanians also represent something of a protest message: They, like other Americans, wonder why their schools are so chronically underfunded in a time of such prosperity.

Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and the state legislature, basking in an unprecedented budget surplus, decided to offer property owners a $250 million tax cut in the form of a one-time $100 refund. This property-tax relief was just part of an $800 million cut in state taxes this year, up from last year's record cut of $400 million.

"We just had an extraordinary year," says Tim Reeves, a spokesman for the governor. "Like everywhere else, the economy was humming, and we had more money available for tax cuts."

In Philadelphia, however, the local school district is facing an $80 million budget shortfall. Many residents see cutting property taxes - which fund schools - as particularly bewildering, especially since many inner-city schools lack funds for basic supplies.

"My daughter has been in public schools since first grade," says Sally Simmons, a West Philly resident whose daughter is now a senior in high school. "I've always been aware of the limited resources and how they're scrounging for things. So when I first heard about this property-tax rebate, my spontaneous reaction was, 'Why?' "

Ms. Simmons joined a group of almost 70 households in the neighborhood that agreed to donate their $100 checks to four local public schools. With some of the money raised, these schools hope to resurface play areas, buy books for libraries, or replace outdated computers.

Most residents giving back their rebates, however, are sending their checks directly to the School District of Philadelphia. "Right now we have about $36,000," says William Kozlowski, director of Grants Fiscal Services for the district. "With a little luck, we'll reach $50,000." The money is being set aside for special grants to individual schools or teachers.

Though hundreds of residents have been returning their rebates, they represent only a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million checks the state Treasury sent out. "This was a very popular initiative," says Mr. Reeves. "The vast majority ... were quite pleased to get their money back."

The Department of Revenue has received hundreds of letters expressing residents' gratitude, officials say.

Reeves also points out that Pennsylvania ranks fourth in teacher salaries and spends almost $8,000 per pupil - far above the national average, according to statistics from the National Education Association.

Part of the funding problem, some observers say, has to do with city politics. Of the 501 districts in the state, the Philadelphia School District is the only one without the power to levy property taxes. Instead, it must rely on funds allocated by the city council. In effect, the district must compete with other city agencies for a share of scarce resources. Even though urban schools receive thousands more state dollars than their wealthy suburban counterparts, overall per-pupil spending in the city ends up being far less.

Residents participating in the "give back the giveback" effort recognize that their actions are largely symbolic, even if they might make a small difference in a few schools. "The idea is to nudge the governor to realize people are in favor of increasing funding for schools," says Melani Lamond, a Philadelphia real estate agent who gave her rebate to a local home and school association.

"Our motivation was not only to make a political statement about the need for funding and to get a few things for the schools in our neighborhood," says Ms. Simmons, "but also to say to the teachers and staff there, 'We appreciate what you're doing.' It's exciting to know there are a lot of people looking for ways to support the schools."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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