Taking it to the streets: Teacher plans billboard blasting SRC, Kenney for contract impasse

(photo courtesy of George Bezanis)

(photo courtesy of George Bezanis)

Thousands of I-95 commuters may soon know just how fed up some Philly teachers are with the long contract stalemate between their school district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

A GoFundMe account is seeking $5,000 to pay for a billboard blasting the School Reform Commission, district Superintendent William Hite, and Mayor Jim Kenney.

The planned message:

Welcome to Philadelphia

Where we don’t value our public school children

5+ years without a raise for our teachers

The vinyl billboard would also feature pictures of School Reform Commissioner Bill Green, Hite and Mayor Kenney.

The man behind this provocation is George Bezanis, a social studies teacher at Central High School and frequent critic of the SRC. Bezanis said he was inspired to act after Kenney promised a group of business leaders earlier this month he wouldn’t raise taxes in the coming year.

“That would be disastrous for us because it means there’s no more money to fund our contract negotiations,” said Bezanis.

The last union contract expired in 2013. Since then, the district and the union have been locked in a long, bitter battle over the terms of a future deal.

The district wants greater flexibility on work rules and a contract that won’t explode its long-term deficit, projected to reach nearly $600 million by 2021. The teachers union, saying its members have saved the district millions by going without raises for years, said any new contract should acknowledge those sacrifices.

Rather than simply attacking the district, however, Bezanis’ billboard also takes aim at Kenney, long considered an ally of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The city is not a primary party in the negotiations. Nor does it control the school district, which is run by a board composed of gubernatorial and mayoral appointees.

The city does, however, help fund the public school system. In that capacity, the city has not done enough under Kenney, Bezanis said.

“He’s neglected us,” said Bezanis. “He’s said that he’s going to support us, but when it comes to hard monetary support, it’s been lacking.”

Bezanis has also skewered Kenney in the past for steering the city’s pre-K expansion money to private providers rather than public pre-k facilities with unionized teachers.

The mayor’s office disputes that characterization of Kenney’s record on education.

In a statement, Otis Hackney, head of the mayor’s Office of Education, noted that the city has increased funding to the district by $400 million over the last five years. Kenney was on City Council for much of that time.

Hackney also pointed to the city’s recent investments in pre-K and community schools, made possible by a beverage tax Kenney championed.

Meanwhile, Hackney said, Kenney’s deputy mayor for labor, Rich Lazer, is “fully engaged in trying to facilitate negotiations between the PFT and the district.”

So far, Bezanis has raised a little more than $1,600 toward his $5,000 goal. If he can scrounge up the rest of the money before the end of the month, the vinyl billboard will go up for four weeks. It is slated for a spot facing southbound traffic on I-95 shortly before commuters reach the north side of Center City.

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