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Duquesne City School District in tug-of-war over contract proposal

| Thursday, April 17, 2014, 4:46 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Duquesne City School District's court-appointed receiver Paul Long asks teachers to understand the district's educational and financial recovery process as they work toward a new contract.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Duquesne Education Association president and physical education teacher Lisa Szakeylhidi explains the staff's position regarding fact-finding and collective bargaining for a new contract on Wednesday.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Teacher Kris Branson addresses Duquesne City School District's admininstration and elected board, asking how they can propose basing teacher salaries on student performance if that factor is not 100 percent teacher-controlled.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Elected Duquesne school director Calvina Harris pleads with teachers during Wednesday's receiver meeting to put student education before their own salaries as the district works through educational and financial recovery.

Duquesne City School District is caught in a collective bargaining tug-of-war over a contract proposal that would base teachers' salary increases on student performance.

The district's court-appointed receiver, Paul B. Long, was expected to make a final ruling on Wednesday afternoon on a March 31 fact-finding report issued by Thomas L. Hewitt through the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. The report, however, was not made public until Tuesday — leaving the Wednesday receiver meeting to be a public hearing-style forum in which teachers, administrators and elected school board members aired their concerns regarding the labor impasse.

On April 9, Long rejected the fact-finding report and the Duquesne Education Association unanimously accepted it. Long's final vote, deciding whether the district returns to traditional collective bargaining, will be cast on April 24 at 11:30 a.m. in the Duquesne Education Center board conference room.

“Why were the recommendations of the fact-finder rejected?” Long said. “Improving education was not addressed. He did address it in the body of the report, but he didn't put it in the recommendations. Improving finances was not addressed.”

While the teachers confront many professional challenges, Long said, the district has legal obligations to the state Department of Education and the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to improve both education and finances.

Duquesne Education Association and the district's leadership have been negotiating a contract extension since their formal agreement expired at the start of the 2012-13 school year for 35 professional staff including 20 classroom teachers along with academic coaches, a guidance counselor, a psychologist and a nurse.

With the district in a state of educational and financial recovery, teachers accepted a wage freeze in 2012-13.

Because of that, staff members said they have lost a full step increase on the wage scale. In negotiations, they asked to be moved two steps in 2013-14 to cover the loss, as one missing step will affect their wages in every year of their employment.

The district proposed step increases in the contract extension's second (2013-14) and third (2014-15) years based on a 10-percent student performance increase in reading and math scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment standardized tests.

Duquesne Education Association president and physical education teacher Lisa Szakeylhidi said she wanted to remain respectful in her testimony, despite feeling insulted by the district's position.

As a teacher who commutes daily from her home in Harmony to her home away from home with Duquesne students, Szakeylhidi said she has never doubted Duquesne is the right district for her.

“I've never worked with more dedicated people,” she said. “I do not know a harder working staff. We have had so many people come in and run us that I've never seen a better-trained staff. Every time someone else comes in, they have a new program and bring in new training. Everybody jumps on board.”

Szakeylhidi said Duquesne teachers and support staff always do what they are told if it benefits the students, including the acceptance of a wage freeze during times of extreme financial distress. But she said basing salaries on performance is unheard of in Pennsylvania.

Hewitt's fact-finding report confirms that the issue of salaries based on test scores has been approached in contract negotiations across the state without any acceptance. Duquesne teachers said they are not willing to be the first.

“The issue is not what's fair for all the other school districts in Pennsylvania,” Long said. “There's no other school district in Pennsylvania like Duquesne, and we've got to think outside the box. We've got to do this different, and we've got to do this better.”

Long said his assessment comes with complete confidence in the district's staff.

“I think we can do it,” he said. “The quality of education and the financial recovery of the school district depend on it.”

Calvina Harris, vice president of the elected school board, told teachers that money isn't everything, but education is.

“We are doing an injustice to these children when they are not educated,” Harris said. “Many of them end up on the streets. Some of them are our babies being killed through slinging drugs and so forth. But if they are educated and have the ability to go out and be productive students in the real world ... this wouldn't happen.”

She asked teachers to think about the standards they set for their own children while discussing the environment in which Duquesne children are expected to learn.

Second-grade teacher Kris Branson said he is familiar with the Duquesne community — not only after seven years working at the school and Duquesne-West Mifflin Boys & Girls Club, but because it's not unlike the East Liberty and Homewood neighborhoods of his youth.

“I grew up with a lot of what our children go through,” he said. “I grew up in a single-parent home with five brothers.”

In the Pittsburgh public school system, Branson said, he sat in classrooms with students whose lives didn't reach far beyond the criminal activity they embraced. The teachers were doing their part, he said, but test scores decreased because the population didn't want to be taught.

“The teachers didn't change,” he said. “Our communities, our families changed. We need to change the culture of education ... as it pertains to our society.”

Branson asked how teachers' salaries can be based on factors out of their control. He said student achievement is based not only on teacher effectiveness, but on students' willingness to learn and a supportive home environment.

With the behavioral strides being made in Duquesne classrooms over the past two years, district officials said that culture change already is beginning. They are seeing more parent and grandparent involvement in school activities and children are working with individual learning plans.

“We agree that you come to school every day and you work hard,” acting Superintendent Barbara McDonnell told staff. “We're trying to provide you with all the supports that we can so that we will be able to get that academic achievement that we are striving for so that we can make a difference.”

With continued professional development and individualized plans for student education, McDonnell said, noticeable academic achievement could come as soon as 2014-15.

If the administration and Long's vision can become reality in the near future, Harris said, today's teachers will know a new Duquesne that has regained its revenue and encouraged its students to achieve.

She suggested that, at that time, teachers will not have to worry about whether they have a job next semester or next year. Likewise, the district will not have to worry about how those teachers will be paid.

“We need to pull together, and when you step in that classroom your first focus is how to educate that child,” Harris said. “It's not going to happen 100 percent, but it can happen. If we don't begin to think like that, we will never be able to reach that goal.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or

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