Hamlet says Pittsburgh Public Schools, union too close to agreement for strike
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet on Tuesday said contract negotiations between the district and teacher's union are stalled over two main issues, but he's confident the sides can avert a strike.
Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union President Nina Esposito-Visgitis disagreed, saying “there are some other very important issues that were not resolved at our last meeting.”
The district's 3,000 teachers have been working without a contract since June. On Monday, they overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike if negotiations continue to stall. The two sides are next scheduled to negotiate Friday.
Hamlet described the strike vote as “part of the process.”
“I don't think there's going to be a strike,” Hamlet said. “We're too close not to come to an agreement.”
He said negotiations have stalled over a contract provision known as the Aug. 1 rule and the district's proposal to allow principals to set teaching assignments.
Under the Aug. 1 rule, teachers are permitted to bid on any position remaining vacant after Aug. 1 in a preceding year that was filled by a new hire.
Lewis R. Amis, a state fact-finder brought in to mediate, recommended giving principals power to set teacher assignments. He recommended the abolishment of the Aug. 1 rule. The district is seeking approval for both.
Esposito-Visgitis said both are important to teachers.
She said principals would have the ability to order teachers in one grade level to teach children in another grade level. She said teachers in the same grade level for multiple years are more proficient because they know the curriculum, materials and quirks of students in that age group.
“I want someone who's an expert in that grade level working with my kids,” she said.
Hamlet said the procedure known as “churning” hurts students.
“You get teachers in there who are working good with students, then all of a sudden they have to leave because of that particular provision,” he said. “Does that make sense?”
Esposito-Visgitis said abolishment of the Aug. 1 rule would take away a teacher's ability to bid on a desired opening.
Hamlet said principals should have autonomy to make scheduling decisions in their buildings.
He said the strike vote has created angst among parents and teachers.
“I want to be truthful to them about how close we are and try to ease some of these uneasy feelings of the community and the parents and teachers,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a contract that, No. 1, recognizes the importance of doing things that are right by students first, but also making sure that our employees are treated fairly, as well.”
He also addressed criticism from Mayor Bill Peduto. Peduto has offered to help mediate the contract dispute. The district turned down the offer.
The mayor said a strike would be a “major disruption” for the city and city officials are discussing contingency plans for dealing it.
“I'm willing to still negotiate and bring people to the table and resources to the table that the superintendent and the union can't bring, but I'm only willing to do it when I don't have a door closed in my face,” Peduto said.
Hamlet said the district's negotiating team has been involved in talks since the beginning and have a clear understanding of where issues stand.
“I don't have a problem with the mayor at all,” he said. “I take direction from my board of directors. I have been given direction by our board.”
The district includes 54 schools and about 25,000 students. City teachers last went on strike from December 1975 to January 1976.
According to Pennsylvania School Code , the union must give the district 48 hours notice before commencing a strike. Teachers may strike only twice in a school year. If the union has been on strike long enough that the district cannot provide the required 180 days of instruction by June 30, the state Secretary of Education may seek an injunction through the county court of common pleas and call the teachers back to work.
Staff writer Jamie Martines contributed. Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.