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Teacher's union says combined-grade classes violates contract

| Wednesday, July 3, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has filed a grievance against the school district, alleging a plan to reopen two elementary schools violates the contract with teachers.

In September, the district is set to reopen Spring Garden and Bon Air elementary schools. The schools were among eight closed last year as part of a plan to trim a $36.5 million budget deficit.

Because projected enrollment is so low at the two schools, district officials want to create split-grade classes, which means students from two different grades would share a teacher. The union's collective bargaining agreement discourages the practice and forbids it on a school-wide basis, President Al Fondy said.

"It's like teaching two different subjects, almost. In other words, you have to split your time in half," he said.

Fondy has asked that the superintendent and the school board hold a hearing next week to address the subject. He wants the board to delay opening the schools until more children enroll.

Superintendent John Thompson, who has opposed reopening the schools, said he plans to schedule a hearing soon.

As of Tuesday, 40 children in grades one through five had enrolled at Bon Air, and 32 children in those grades had enrolled at Spring Garden. Kindergarten enrollments were not available. When the schools closed, Bon Air had 102 pupils and Spring Garden had 169.

Thompson said the district's tentative plan is to combine grades one through four into two classes, and have a separate class each for kindergarten and fifth-grade pupils.

Operating those two schools will cost the district about $1.2 million annually.

"If that grievance is upheld, then that means we have to put some more teachers into that school and that would be an additional expense," Thompson said.

In December, the school board's majority faction, led by President Jean Fink, voted to reopen Spring Garden and Bon Air, along with Arlington Middle School. Fink and her allies on the board said those neighborhoods suffered when their schools were closed.

Two new board members, Theresa Colaizzi and Floyd McCrea, were elected partly on promises to reopen some schools.

Fink said the district has split grades in other schools from time to time, and she said enrollment at the schools likely will climb once new principals are named. She scoffed at a suggestion made by Fondy that the grievance could provide an easy way out for board members who feel they have to open the schools to please their constituents.

Bon Air is in Fink's district.

"I want to open that school. I have been through many roadblocks because obviously the administration does not want to open it and now the union does not want to open it," Fink said. "The community wants its school back."

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