Teacher plans to shame mayor, SRC, superintendent with I-95 billboard

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A Philadelphia teacher is raising $5,000 to place a billboard on I-95 attempting to shame city and school district leaders over the lack of a teachers' contract

Coming soon to I-95, if a city teacher has anything to say about it: a billboard calling out Mayor Kenney and Philadelphia School District leaders.

Donations are streaming in to crowd-fund a giant reminder that Philadelphia teachers have not had a contract for nearly four years and have gone five without a raise.

George Bezanis, a teacher at Central High School, is taking aim at the people he feels are most responsible for the lack of a contract for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers -- a “calamity,” he said.

“As each month passes with no agreement in sight, Philadelphia loses more and more great educators to other surrounding districts. It is the over 100,000 children in the district, however, who suffer the most because of this lack of a stable workforce,” Bezanis wrote in his online plea for donations to place the billboard.

Two days after starting a GoFundMe campaign online, Bezanis had raised well over $1,000. He needs $5,000 to pay for a piece of prime billboard real estate -- a sign on I-95 near the Center City exit -- for four weeks, beginning soon.

“Welcome to Philadelphia, where we don’t value our public school children,” the billboard would read. It would include photos of School Reform Commissioner Bill Green, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and Kenney.

Hite and the SRC are naturals, Bezanis said. But Bezanis said he holds Kenney just as responsible. The mayor recently said he would not seek any significant new tax increases this year. With Republicans firmly in power in Harrisburg and firmly opposed to significant new money for Philadelphia, that leaves the city to help get the contract settled, Bezanis said.

“The only thing that could possibly help us solve our budgetary crisis was if Kenney was going to get some money,” Bezanis said. “He‘s billed himself as a public education person, and he needs to be called out on it.”

The School District, while in relatively healthy financial shape at the moment, projects a deficit of $500 million by the end of 2021, without one extra penny to pay teachers.

Bezanis said he initially included Gov. Wolf on the ad, too, but pulled him because Wolf is vulnerable in polls, and the Republican legislature is more to blame for a lack of state funding than the governor.

The first billboard company Bezanis contacted would not take the ad, Bezanis said; it does not allow personal attacks. When he called Outdoor, the price it quoted -- $9,950 -- was out of reach, Bezanis said, but once he explained his cause, a representative was sympathetic and quoted him a price of $5,000 for four weeks.

The GoFundMe move proved popular right away, with people chipping in $20 here, $100 there.

“Not only has there not been a raise, new teachers are being hired on their present experience level with higher degrees and being paid at that level, while there are teachers who have been with the district five years who have advanced degrees and are not being compensated. This is another example of unfair practice,” Janice Smith wrote on the donation page. 

One person writing under the name Betsy DeVos, a nod to the new U.S. education secretary, said she was both a teacher and parent of two district children. “Help us make this right,” she wrote. “I'm a single mom with one on the way to college -- NO CLUE how I can afford this. I have chosen to raise my kids here -- we teachers need to be treated BETTER. RIGHT NOW.”

Otis Hackney, Kenney's chief education officer, took issue with the notion that the mayor has been ineffective on education issues.

"The city has increased its funding to the district by over $400 million over the last five years," Hackney said in a statement. "City Council approved and the mayor signed the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, which will put nearly $70 million annually towards quality pre-K and community schools when these programs are at full implementation in 2020."

Hackney also said the city was "fully engaged in trying to facilitate negotiations between the PFT and the district. Given the Trump administration's view of public education, we appreciate the importance of resolving this contract as quickly as possible."

Spokesman H. Lee Whack said the district continues to talk with the PFT.

"Our desire is a contract which fairly compensates our teachers, but also retains the fiscal stability that the district has fought so hard for," Whack said in a statement.

Teachers have been working without a contract since 2013. The SRC attempted to cancel the contract the following year, claiming special powers it believed it held under state law, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that move illegal. The School District has said it needs teachers to begin paying toward their health insurance -- they do not currently contribute to the cost of their plans -- and more flexibility in work rules.

The district has said it has made an offer worth more $100 million. The PFT rejected the offer, which included pay increases for years of experience but no retroactive pay. It has made a counteroffer officials said would cost $400 million more than the district offer, a sum the school system said it cannot pay.

Bezanis has not shied away from attacking the SRC -- and sometimes its members personally -- in the past. A frequent speaker at commission meetings, he often calls for the dissolution of the body.

The effort is Bezanis' alone. It is not endorsed by the PFT, which declined comment.

Bezanis said he was unsure how he would proceed if the GoFundMe site raises insufficient money to buy the billboard space he wants.