An Interview With Nina Esposito Visgitis


Nina Esposito-Visgitis

Last Thursday, we interviewed Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT), over the phone as part of a piece on the recent negotiations between the PFT and the school board regarding the current contract for Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers. Ms. Esposito-Visgitis disclosed her assessment of the situation in general and offered insight into the state of negotiations as well as the recent fact-finding report released by state-appointed arbitrator Lewis Amis. Below is the unabridged transcript of the interview.


The complete article, including a more thorough breakdown of the dispute and statements from Obama’s teachers, is available to read here. If you want to read the entire fact-finding report, it can be found here.


Sam Bisno: For those of us who are unaware of what is going on between PPS teachers and the school board right now, could you briefly summarize your assessment of what exactly is going on?

Nina Esposito-Visgitis: Sure. Our contract expired; in fact, it was an extension, so I feel like we’ve been in negotiations for years, but our two-year extension (that was really a one-year extension) expired on June 30, so we have been in contract negotiations for a new contract for about a year and half now, trying to achieve a new and hopefully longer contract. We’re in negotiations way too much, and that’s one of our issues.


SB: What are the main grievances teachers are expressing with the current contract?

NE: In the fact-finding report, a major point of contention was moving back to one pay scale. Teachers that have been hired since 2010 are on a different payscale — it’s a performance payscale — so a big piece was moving us all back into one pay scale, which has been very contentious with our members, so we’re very aware of that and we want to move back to one pay scale without the performance pay component. Another one has been scheduling preference, which is a long-time practice in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which gives teachers input into what they teach, particularly in our elementary schools. Another major one is that our early childhood teachers — no one disputes how important early childhood education is for our students — are paid far below what school-age teachers are paid. We find this offensive, we find this to be unfair treatment because they do 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. Another thing that the Board did not deal with was we wanted to have more rigid limits on class size because we know some class sizes get out of control, and we know that’s not great for education, but the fact-finder did not even address that in our hearing.


SB: Are certain teachers being affected more than others? It sounds like maybe you kind of answered that, like early-age teachers and new teachers that have been hired since 2010 are getting affected more by the contract than older teachers?

NE: Absolutely. But what was really cool was, our teachers stood together to say we stand. I mean, it was voted down 97.5% from teachers. So it shows that people weren’t just looking out for themselves. And I think that’s a great lesson from this. Even people that it didn’t have much effect on or it 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.


SB: Then it sounds like all teachers are pretty much in agreement about their demands?

NE: Well, not about the demands. Don’t forget, I’m talking about the fact-finder report, which is different than negotiations that are continuing now. So I’m talking about the fact-finder report because I can. That has become public knowledge. That’s why I’m talking about that. A lot of times, when you’re in negotiations you don’t negotiate in public. We’ve always been careful about that, because we see the mess it can cause.


SB: Okay. So can you give us a sense of how negotiations are currently going? Are the sides reaching agreements on anything? What’s going on exactly?

NE: We have reached agreement on some items. I’m very excited to be working now with Dr. Hamlet and the deputy superintendent and educators who know a lot about teaching. I’m excited that we’re starting a robust conversation with them, and I’m hoping that gets us moving.


SB: Do you think that there’s an end in sight?

NE: Absolutely, yes. But you know what, I tend to be an eternal optimist. And I am because I know what we’re fighting for is right, so I don’t give up at all. I know the great work our teachers do each and every day, and they deserve to be recognized for that.


SB: We’ve heard talk of possibly a walk-out, maybe something like that. Is it possible that a demonstration of some sort could come if there is no decision reached soon?

NE: That’s so interesting that you said that. We are working on escalation techniques. We have been testifying at board hearings. Teachers have been going in. We’re 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 to what we’re fighting for, and we really are fighting for our schools.

Daevan Mangalmurti: I just had a question about contract terms for paraprofessionals. Have you been talking about that at all?

NE: I’m so glad you brought that up. The PFT represents four units. One of them is Pittsburgh Mt. Oliver intermediate unit. They’re not in negotiations. But our three Pittsburgh Public School units are all in. They all expired together. So it’s our teachers and other professionals, that’s one contract. Paraprofessionals, that’s another contract. And technical clerical workers, that’s another contract. We are in negotiations for all of them. Fact finding only focused on the teacher contract. So fact-finding did not. But we have certainly presented our proposals for both our paraprofessional and our technical clerical unit. And we would most certainly want to settle them all at one time.


SB: If the PFT got everything it’s asking for, what would the new contract look like? What would change for teachers if everything went right?

NE: If everything went right teacher voice would be upheld and celebrated, as it should be. We would be paying more to our new teachers, because we want Pittsburgh to attract the best teachers. Pay scales in other districts are far higher than ours for the new teachers. We want our new teachers paid well so we attract the best and the brightest. We want to be brought back into one pay scale, but we want the transition to be fair for those that have been hired since 2010. We want those teachers to be recognized for what they have earned already. Class sizes would have limits on them, so you wouldn’t see Phys. Ed. classes of 50 or 60 kids. We would have a longer term of agreement. Pittsburgh always seems to be in negotiations. Other school districts traditionally have longer terms of agreement than we do. We want that, not for ourselves, but for the district. It’s good for the district and the union, who’re spending time and money on negotiations when we should be spending time and money on educating our kids and attracting and retaining great teachers. That’s where our time and money should go, in my book.


SB: Alright, then just the last question. So if you could send a message to the students of Pittsburgh Public about what’s going on, if you could tell them something, what would you tell the students?

NE: The PFT is always on the forefront of innovation and fighting for teacher and student rights. We want our school district to be the best urban school district in Pennsylvania and the country, and I think we’ve demonstrated [that] repeatedly through our work with teacher evaluation, our work on career and technical education, our work in early childhood. I certainly hope we have. I hope we have demonstrated our commitment and love for the students of Pittsburgh.


SB: Alright, well that’s pretty much it. Thank you so much.

NE: Thank you very much.