Dear Wealthy School Districts: It’s Not Your Money, Anyway (A Note About Non-Property Taxes and the Earned Income Tax in Our Cities)

Even if you don’t live in Allentown or the Lehigh Valley, if you’re interested in infrastructure, urban renewal, and stopping suburban sprawl (let’s call it “mall creep”), this post is for you.

As you might know, the former Philadelphia Phantoms are coming to Allentown.  The Phantoms are the top-level developmental affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, and their new arena is being built downtown as the centerpiece of what will ultimately be at least a $600 million dollar redevelopment project in the Queen City.   Honestly, redevelopment doesn’t begin to describe what the special tax zone (the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, NIZ for short) will mean for Allentown.  The NIZ, created by a bill in the PA legislature, does things that make relocation to the NIZ very attractive.  You can learn more about that here.

Something else the bill that created the NIZ does is return the Earned Income Tax of people who work in Allentown but don’t live there back to city to help fund the arena project. Some people don’t like that.  Some, maybe most, local municipalities are used to using EITs to help fund the suburban school districts they support.  Some people are starting to say “why should School District So and So pay for an Arena in Allentown?”

Those people miss the point.

For the last 47 years or so, Earned Income Tax in the Commonwealth has gone back to a worker’s home municipality instead of staying in the place where it was generated.  Before 1965, this wasn’t the case.  Before 1965 (read, before our core cities started failing), Earned Income Taxes stayed where they were made.  Pennsylvania legislators, keen on seeing farmland turned to suburbs, put a stop to that and the townships blossomed with stripmalls, blacktop, and sprawl.  Urban cores and urban schools were left to wither on the vine.

Now, the same school districts and municipalities that have benefited from this tax grab for close to 50 years are crying foul because EITs are going back where they belong. Heaven forbid the core cities and the near-broke school districts in them get a fair shake in 2012.

For shame, township people on the wrong side of this issue.   The Allentown School District can’t afford year-long art, music or gym classes, even at the elementary level.

Look, I know it’s easy to get used to privilege, and then to expect it.  But as Jon Geeting and others have been saying, the cost of living and doing business in the suburbs has been subsidized from the start.  This isn’t about a hypothetically free market dictating that setting up shop in low-density townships made more sense than continuing to develop walkable cities.  This is about, and always has been about, the myth of cheap suburban sprawl.  Sprawl came at a cost to our economies, our infrastructure, our environment, and our mental and physical health. It came at a cost to our cities, to be sure, and to our schools.

No one is building an urban arena with money that should be going to buy football pads for rich school districts.  No one is suggesting that we slash the budget of the Parkland High School closed-circuit television station so Spanish-speaking kids in Allentown can live in a city with a future.  Who would ever suggest something like that?

Allow me to paraphrase one person who actually might.  “Render onto Allentown what is Allentown’s.”

Allentown at 250 and 251: New Years Reflections On Our Work Together This Year and Beyond

New Years Eve marks the beginning of Allentown’s 250th birthday celebration, a year-long observance for which I’m very excited.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the progress we’re all hoping to make in 2012 and the work being put in motion now that will make the Allentown of 2013 a healthier, more generative community.

At First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, we’ll spend much time, talent, and treasure in 2012 working with the Sixth Street Shelter to expand occupancy in that facility by 25% by 2013. Alan Jennings put it to me this way: “if an unwed mother, her infant child, and her scruffy male companion came to the shelter on Christmas Eve this year, they’d be turned away. There’s no room at the inn.”  Our Local Care team is taking the lead role in organizing the entire congregation for this important work.

At St. Paul’s Lutheran church, Pastor Richard Baumann helps lead the Safe Haven homeless shelter, an overflow facility that’s quickly exposing how very dire the occupancy issues are at other local shelters. In 2012, First Pres will partner with St. Paul’s in new, exciting ways around these and other issues.  St. Paul’s also provides free Sunday morning breakfast before services each week and has established on the southeast corner of 8th and Walnut a unique community where the homeless have been invited into leadership roles in the larger life of the church.  St. Paul’s also hosts the Lehigh County Conference of Churches Soup Kitchen and is providentially positioned in the vicinity of the new, multi-million dollar office and retail complex planned for 2013, One City Center.

Led by Pastor Bob Stevens, Zion’s Reformed UCC (The Liberty Bell Church) celebrates its own 250th Anniversary in 2012, as does St. Paul’s. These historic Allentown communities of faith began in the same log cabin as two of six local congregations in 1762.  Both continue to serve and lead the community in 2012, and both are poised to make huge impacts in 2013 and beyond.  Zion’s graciously hosted the Lehigh County Conference of Churches’ fall gathering concerning the  growing economic divide in the context of the global financial crisis. This event, sponsored in part by FPCA’s Peace, Justice, and Missionary Team, was a huge success despite the unexpected Halloween storm. With a 400-seat sanctuary and a place on the National Register of Historic Sites for its role during the American Revolution, Zion’s and its famous Liberty Bell Museum (which celebrates its 50th birthday this year) are the logical terminus of the Allentown Arts Walk and are natural partners for anyone considering the expansion of the arts initiatives already bustling on Sixth Street.  One of Pastor Bob’s visions for 2012 is to open this beautiful venue to the budding community of Christian artists and musicians as a platform for support, encouragement, and spiritual engagement.  “Shalom in the city” takes many forms at Zion’s and blossoms in many ways.

Beautifully framed by the newly-renovated and expanded Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley (which incorporates FPCA’s original building) on the east, the Baum School and Da Vinci Horse on the north and Symphony Hall on the west is the Arts Walk’s point of origin: the Allentown Arts Park.  By 2013, I hope to see the west side of the Sovereign Building, the last leg of the Walk connecting 6th Street to Zion’s, as a fully realized outdoor art space with murals, sculptures, improved landscape maintenance and a thriving sense of public commons.  Click here for a Google Photos gallery of pictures from this part of the City taken in July including Zion’s, Symphony Hall, the Arts Walk, the Baum School, The Musselman Arts Development Center and more.

2012 will see the construction of the new Allentown Arena, and, as we learned recently, the creation of One City Center, a stone’s throw from St. Paul’s. By the Fall of 2013, the Arena and One City Center projects will be completed.  Alvin H. Butz will be doubling down their physical presence on Hamilton Street with an expansion of their corporate headquarters in the old retail district once anchored by the world-famous Hess Bros. department store at 9th and Hamilton.  Ground will break this summer, with an expected completion of 2013.  Although they are not without controversy, the Arena project and the special tax zone created to foster it are also drawing the first serious waterfront development ideas in a decade.

Led by our Local Care team, FPCA continues to partner with Roosevelt Community School, the Allentown School District’s first COMPASS school, joining our friends at Zion’s EC Church on Susquehanna St and other community partners like Air Products, Good Shepherd, and Allentown Symphony Hall. The success of the COMPASS model is palpable at Roosevelt, and in the eight years since Roosevelt’s COMPASS designation, teachers report a “180 degree change” in the school’s academic culture.   At Roosevelt, supplemental education doesn’t stop with children.  Adult classes on parenting, financial basics, and English as a second language provide school parents with the kinds of resources and access that foster better environments for success at home, work, and school.  Since the Roosevelt pilot, Central Elementary, South Mountain Middle School, and McKinley Elementary school have become COMPASS community schools. Our call in 2012 is to continue our work with Roosevelt, even as we partner with community stakeholders to explore the ways we can lift up the COMPASS model across the district, and even as we consider establishing a low-cost or free pre-k school in the City for under-served populations.

FPCA’s partnerships with the Lehigh County Conference of Churches and its programs and committees (LCCC Daybreak, LCCC Soup Kitchen at St. Paul’s, and LCCC’s Peace and Advocacy Committee and Ecumenical Committee) remain strong thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers and mission team leaders. On January 29,  FPCA will host an ecumenical service organized by the Conference’s Ecumenical Committee to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Members and friends of FPCA are also taking a lead role in the planning of the Third Annual Martin Luther King Dinner and Program at St. John’s UCC at 15th and Walnut on January 16.

In 2012, Tony Sundermeier and I will co-convene the regular Beerituality gatherings at the BrewWorks at 812 W. Hamilton Street. Musician, friend, and creator of the broken liturgy worship experience John Hardt will join us for an evening of song and conversation at 7 PM on January 19.  We’re blessed to have John as our first guest of the New Year.

Happy as I am to join with City residents and leaders in the celebration of Allentown’s 250th anniversary beginning tonight, I’m even more excited for the work we’ll all do together this year toward a better 2013 and beyond. I’m blessed to be charged with much of this work as part of my vocation at First Presbyterian, but the development of generative relationships and cultures in the City is something diverse groups of religious, civic, business, and community volunteers believe in and continue to work toward.  May this be the year that changes everything.  As we might say in church, may this be the year of the Lord’s favor!  Amen.

At Christmas, a Tale of Two School Districts

Roosevelt Community School

A few months ago, I attended my first Community Partner meeting at Roosevelt Community School here in Allentown.  For those of you not familiar with the Community School model or how in works in this region, visit this page at the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.

Because of state budget cuts in education, elementary schools in the Allentown School District (a district and tax base not nearly as well-off as the Parkland School District that borders it) don’t have year-round gym, music, or art programs.  Instead, they get nine weeks of each.  Nine weeks of art.  Nine weeks of music. Nine weeks of gym in a district where over 40 percent of elementary students are either overweight or obese. Keep that in mind.

At Roosevelt,  Allentown Symphony Hall is a civic partner providing free music education five days a week via the El Sistema program for the length of the school year.  While I waited in the hall for my first meeting to start, I heard children talking to each other candidly and without prompting about how excited they were to be able to start El Sistema.  At another ASD elementary school, fliers for after-school fitness clubs paper the walls.  Mentoring programs, art programs, financial planning programs…these are all being organized and run by teachers, parents, volunteers, and, in the case of Roosevelt, a Community Director.

At Roosevelt, supplemental education doesn’t stop with children.  There are classes for parents, too, classes on parenting, financial basics, and English as a second language.  This philosophy is at least two-fold as far as I can tell:  parents with more resources and access help foster a better environment for success at home, and schools that are open to the community become places where parents, despite real or supposed cultural barriers, feel welcome.  That’s essential.

I’m sharing all of this for a few reasons that are related.

  • It’s extremely important.  As our city schools face continued challenges locally and nationally, and as budgets are cut because of the ongoing financial crisis or political maneuvering, I do believe these kinds of models will be an important way forward.
  • As Director of Mission at First Presbyterian in Allentown, I work with volunteers at Roosevelt.  100 percent of Roosevelt students are on free or assisted lunch.  Many don’t have enough socks, proper shoes, or warm winter clothes.  If you want to help with that, regardless of where you live, get in touch with me.
  • A few days ago, a post went up on the Valley610 blog telling people to add the Parkland Educational Foundation to your holiday gift-giving list. Jon Geeting jumped on this with a rather provocative headline.  By and large, Parkland has money.  By and large, gifts to the PEF will serve to maintain and further enhance the district’s profile as top in the region, and will help Parkland students maintain and enhance their already jack-pot experience.  That’s fine.
  • I owe a lot to the education I received in the 80s and 90s as a student in the Parkland School District.  We had a lot of opportunity, and kids there now have even more.  We had a ton of resources, and I can’t even imagine the kinds of resources that abound in each of the district’s schools at all levels in 2011.  In high school, I was Debate Team president and the President of the Class of ’98, and I understand even more now how lucky I was to be where I was and to have had parents, friends, teachers, and administrators who all impacted my life in profound ways.  Parkland has a great tradition, and I hope it continues.
  • But….

Kids in the ASD don’t have socks.  They don’t have winter coats.  They don’t have year-round gym or art or music.  Many can’t afford school lunch.  A few miles away sit schools bustling with opportunity in communities with money.

If you have a few expendable dollars this Christmas, give it to Community Schools like Roosevelt in the Allentown School District.  I like the intention, in some ways, behind the Parkland Educational Foundation’s idea of giving in honor of your favor teacher and so on.  But seriously, why not donate to the ASD in your favorite Parkland teacher’s name?  That’s what I’ll be doing.