After weeks of buildup and months of failed negotiations, Pittsburgh public school teachers said they will strike on Friday if no contract agreement is reached, marking what would be the first citywide teacher walkoff in four decades.
The labor union alerted district Superintendent Anthony Hamlet of the possible action today, two weeks after Pittsburgh Public Schools’ teachers authorized their union, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT), to call a strike in the midst of protracted and so far inconclusive contract talks with the district and Pittsburgh Board of Public Education.
Today’s strike notification provides 96 hours for the two sides to reach an agreement and gives the district more than the mandated 48 hours to prepare if teachers do strike.
“We provided the district with a 96-hour notice in order to provide extra time for our students’ parents to secure childcare for their children, our students, and to provide the parties’ with sufficient time to reach tentative agreement on new contracts for the three bargaining units prior to the commencement of the strike,” PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said in a statement.
The district has asked the union to provide its final best-offer.
“The lone remaining issue at impasse in negotiations concerns the ability of principals to build their master schedule with the best interest of students at the forefront – through assigning teacher class schedules and teaching assignments after input from the teacher,” District spokesperson Ebony Pugh wrote in a statement today. “Currently, unlike most other school districts, PPS principals do not have the final say over teacher class schedules and teaching assignments.”
Esposito-Visgitis said in a statement: “Since the beginning of these negotiations over eighteen months ago, the PFT and the District have reached a small number of signed tentative agreements on proposed terms. None of these items includes salary, healthcare, equity for early childhood teachers, transfers, athletic coaches, or any of the other items outlined for members in the Fact-Finder’s report which was posted for public review in October 2017.”
Matters of compensation were the main driving force when Pittsburgh public school teachers last walked off the job in 1975, keeping 62,300 Pittsburgh students from attending classes at 105 schools for a tense two months.
There was no immediate word on how long this strike might last, but the district has said the Pennsylvania Department of Education would determine the length of a strike allowing students to “meet state requirements mandating 180 days of instruction for students between July 1 and June 15.”
As was the case in 1975, schools will again be closed during this strike and the district’s current count of roughly 24,000 students left out of classes from PreK to 12th grade.
“In the event that we reach an impasse and the PFT elects to strike, teachers will not report and schools would close while the union is on strike,” Pugh previously told The Incline.
The PFT has consistently portrayed the strike option as a last resort and something they sought to avoid. But they added that they’ve been working to renegotiate a contract for the last year and a half and that their roughly 2,500 members have been working without one since a temporary contract extension expired in June. The strike affects PFT’s three bargaining units, meaning more than 3,000 professional, paraprofessional and technical clerical workers will walk out.
Prior to the strike being called, Mayor Bill Peduto said both he and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had offered assistance in brokering a compromise between the district and teachers’ union and “helping in all ways to solve the contract dispute” between them.
In December, the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education approved a $625.1 million budget without a tax increase but with a dollar amount increase of 5.1 percent from the previous year.
So what now?
The district has said it would keep parents and other stakeholders updated, in the event of a teacher strike, through the district’s website, social media sites and other forms of notification.
Meanwhile, A+ Schools, a Pittsburgh-based community alliance, has rushed to set up expanded childcare services and efforts to find volunteers with proper clearances to watch school children while their parents work.
A+ Schools previously said several groups and organizations — including Voices Against Violence in Beltzhoover, several YMCA locations, the Boys and Girls Clubs in Shadyside and Lawrenceville, The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Youth Places, Inc. — had committed to help care for Pittsburgh’s school children during a strike.
A+ Schools has asked that parents and caregivers in need of child care during the strike fill out this form and that volunteers with clearances and organizations that can help provide child care services fill out this one. (UPDATE: A list of organizations and programs that will be extending their services to assist families and students during a strike can be accessed here or by calling 2-1-1, United Way’s resource hotline. A map of participating child care providers can be accessed here. A+ Schools urges families and caregivers who may be in need of these services during a strike to “contact these organizations immediately to ask about enrollment and capacity.” A+ Schools says the City of Pittsburgh has also partnered with the school district to open its recreation centers to provide breakfast and lunch to students during the strike.)
“The message we want all parents and caregivers to hear is that you need to start planning in case a strike occurs,” James Fogarty, executive director with A+ Schools, said in a statement.
“We have heard from some providers, particularly those who work with children with disabilities, that families must contact their insurance providers to enable access to certain programs and facilities,” Fogarty added. “We don’t want families to be caught off guard.”