Commentary: Philly's underfunded schools, undervalued teachers

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Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

By George Bezanis

This week, a billboard is scheduled to go up on southbound Interstate 95 before the Center City exit with the words "Welcome to Philadelphia: Where we don't value our public school children. 5-plus years without a raise for our teachers."

The message will be signed "with love," and be accompanied by photos of School Reform Commission member Bill Green, Superintendent William R. Hite, and Mayor Kenney.

The thousands of dollars needed for this project were crowdsourced in just five days with an average donation of under $30 from teachers, parents, and public school advocates throughout the city. What has driven educators to shame our public officials into action? Why have things gotten so desperate?

The hardworking women and men of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) have now gone for more than five years without a raise. During that time, our college loans have taken their toll, our bills have continued to rise, and our debts have multiplied as inflation continues to eat away at our earning potential.

We have also gone without a contract since 2013. Teachers who were hired under a legally-binding agreement assuring them contractual step increases and education degree adjustments have not seen any of those salary provisions materialize. Personally, I have sacrificed $38,958 in promised wage and degree increases because of this frozen contract. At Central High School alone - just one of the district's 220 public schools - our staff members have collectively lost more than $2 million.

Instead of negotiating with teachers, the SRC and Hite chose to increase the animosity between employer and employee by spending millions of dollars on legal fees as it illegally attempted to impose a contract. Morale slipped even further as they claimed there simply was not enough money to give us a fair deal.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that thousands of educators have departed for greener pastures. Many of us who are left have taken second, sometimes even third, jobs. Some have had our homes foreclosed on or have lost cars to the repo man. Others have put off purchasing that first home or delayed having a baby indefinitely. Meanwhile, while we all spiral further and further into debt, we scrape together what little money we have left to buy supplies for our chronically underfunded schools so our city's most vulnerable children do not continue to suffer because of the inaction of our political leaders.

The situation has become untenable.

It was in the hopes of fixing this dysfunctional system that PFT members worked tirelessly to elect Kenney as mayor. Kenney billed himself as the "public education" candidate who would not wait for Harrisburg to act. Candidate Kenney promised:

$90 million in additional recurring funds to the district by 2018 through his zero-based budgeting initiative.

$40 million for our public schools through the sale of marketable commercial tax liens.

$15 million by raising land values on tax abated properties.

To at least match the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes contributions of $23 million that Boston receives from its large nonprofits, such as Harvard, by going after nonprofits in Philadelphia, such as the University of Pennsylvania and its tax-exempt endowment of $10.72 billion.

Kenney has yet to deliver. As he prepares to issue his second annual budget proposal to City Council, those of us who have sacrificed for far too long are asking the mayor to live up to his campaign promises. It's time to put words into action.

When the mayor, City Council, and the School District support our dedicated educators, students, and public schools by settling a fair contract with the PFT, the billboard will come down. Until then, the overworked and underpaid teachers of Philadelphia will continue to remind our officials of their obligation to fully fund our public schools.

George Bezanis is a social studies teacher at Central High School. He serves as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' representative at Central, and is a leader of the union's Caucus of Working Educators. gbezanis@gmail.com

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