A Look at the PFT-School Board Contract Dispute


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In July of 2016, Pittsburgh Public Schools welcomed Anthony Hamlet to serve as superintendent of schools for the city of Pittsburgh. Since July of 2017, the Pittsburgh Board of Directors and Dr. Hamlet have been negotiating with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT 400), the local teachers’ union, concerning the terms of the new teacher contract, which was extended instead of being renegotiated two years ago. Mr. Denlinger, the 12th grade English teacher at Obama, says, “Two years ago, all we got was another extension on our current contract, so I think we’re feeling like there has not been a new contract in over eight years. There’s been nothing added to the contract to address increased cost of living or anything else for over eight years.” Tension has been building on both sides over the course of the negotiations, especially as fall has arrived. There are several reasons for this.

Prior to the start of contract negotiations, teachers are asked by their union to answer questions about what they would like to see altered in their current contract and to offer suggestions about the new incarnation. After this feedback is acknowledged, the Board and the teachers’ union enter into closed negotiations until an agreement is reached, meaning teachers can hear nothing more about the progress of the contract nor offer additional ideas for the new accord. This is an accepted process, and it is eased along by the fact that the school board and the union will usually agree to preserve agreements under the old contract during negotiations. However, as Obama’s Mr. Collinger explains,

“Last year, we still used the old contract even though it was expired, and they moved us up the pay scale even though we didn’t have a new contract. Now we’re in still in status quo but they’re no longer moving us up the ladder. We won’t be able to move up the ladder until we get a new contract. This affects really new teachers even more than me, teachers who, let’s say, should be getting five or six thousand dollars more a month, whereas I’m losing, say, a thousand per month that I would be getting if they were still moving us up the steps. The hope is that once we settle a new contract, they’ll pay us retroactively. Teachers that have only been here for a year or two are the most upset, since they’re the ones losing the most.”

Some students may have observed their teachers wearing blue PFT t-shirts on Fridays in support of the cause, and there has even been talk of a potential walk-out. As negotiations continue to drag on, an air of disgruntlement has begun to spread throughout the school. We decided to investigate the matter.

Our first move was to reach out to Regina Holley, the President of the Board of Directors, for a statement, but she said she was “not permitted to talk about the contract” at that time. We do know that, for its part, the Board is attempting to increase its authority over teacher schedules and limit the length of this contract to only three years. A major bone of contention between the Board and the PFT has been how salaries will be decided and the structure of raises that will be implemented for the duration of this new contract. The Board is proposing lower increases to a teacher’s salary each year than the union, and it is also continuing to advocate for a single pay scale for all teachers hired after 2010 as well as a change in the number of steps in the pay scale, so that teachers take longer to reach the maximum salary for their position. The Board is also resisting any efforts to pay early-age teachers on the same plane as their grade-level counterparts due to the expense of such a move.

Recently, Lewis Amis, a state arbitrator, was invited by the Board to develop a fact-finding report—an analysis of the claims of both sides and a proposed resolution to their disagreements. Amis found mostly in favor of the Board on issues of dispute between the district and the union. This was most important in regards to the salary issue, where he largely agreed with the district’s position, aims, and arguments for its actions.

We also contacted Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the PFT 400. While echoing the evaluation of the situation that many of the teachers we spoke to had expressed, she further stressed that the affair was not limited to concerns regarding compensation, but that grievances were far more widespread, encompassing scheduling preference, term length, and class size. As she put it, “If everything went right teacher voice would be upheld and celebrated, as it should be.”

Moreover, she pointed out that the conflict does not only affect high school teachers like those we interviewed, but truly is district-wide: “Our early childhood teachers…are paid far below what school-age teachers are paid. We find this offensive, we find this to be unfair treatment because they’re doing the same job and it’s just as important, and we think this a practice that should be discontinued, and they should be paid comparable payment with the school-age teachers.”

“But what was really cool was, our teachers stood together to say we stand. I mean, [the fact-finding report] was voted down 97.5% from teachers….Even people that it didn’t have much of an effect on or was a pretty good deal for voted no because they saw it was not equitable to their union brothers and sisters, and that was a really strong message they sent that I’m extraordinarily proud of.”

Ms. Esposito-Visgitis also voiced a positive outlook on the state of negotiations moving forward, telling us that she was “very excited to be working now with Dr. Hamlet and the deputy superintendent and educators who know a lot about teaching” and to have “reached agreement on some items”, and that there was “absolutely an end in sight”. That being said, when asked about the possibility of a walk-out or other form of public demonstration on the part of the teachers, she had this to say: “We are working on escalation techniques. We have been testifying at Board hearings. Teachers have been going in. We’ve been going to visit school board members. So we are talking about things including rallies and petitions. We have not gotten there yet, but that may be a piece to bring recognition of what we’re fighting for. We truly are fighting for our schools.”

Finally, we asked Ms. Esposito-Visgitis to send one message to the students of PPS. Her response: “The PFT is always on the forefront of innovation and fighting for teacher and students rights. We want our school district to be the best urban school district in Pennsylvania and the country, and I think we’ve demonstrated repeatedly through our work with teacher evaluation, our work on career and technical education, our work in early childhood. I certainly hope we have. For example, the 75,000 free books we’ve given away in the last three years to our kids. I hope we have demonstrated our commitment and love for the students of Pittsburgh.”

Now that the union has resoundingly rejected the state arbitrator’s report, it seems that negotiations are in many ways back to square one, a fact that will undoubtedly exacerbate teacher dissatisfaction and may lead to the escalation tactics Ms. Esposito-Visgitis mentioned. For now, discussions will continue and teachers will have to live under the terms of the current contract indefinitely.