The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers sent ballots to its 3,000 members Monday asking teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical workers for authorization to call a strike.
The ballots will be counted Feb. 12. If a majority approve the authorization, the PFT will need to notify the district 48 hours before walking out.
Union President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said it’s hard to know for sure if that's likely.
“We are hoping that we will be able to continue talking and come up with a resolution before even the strike ballots are back. That would make me very happy,” she said.
The union and the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration have been negotiating for a year and a half for three separate contracts, one each for teaching professionals; paraprofessionals, which includes teaching aides; and technical-clerical workers like information technology specialists and auditors.
Employees and the administration began negotiations on all three agreements several months before the contract expired in June 2017. There hasn’t been a teachers' strike in Pittsburgh in more than 40 years.
In a statement Friday, Anthony Hamlet said the district is working diligently with the PFT toward a resolution, “prioritizing our mission of providing the highest quality education possible for every student.”
“I have nothing but the highest regard for our outstanding teachers – in fact, as a former teacher, I have walked in their shoes,” he said in the statement. “But I have a responsibility to the children of this district to put their needs above those of adults, even adults I deeply respect and admire. Real change results from difficult work.”
The latest round of negotiations ended late Friday, but Esposito-Visgitis said PFT attorneys are working to set up additional meetings.
According to the district, “there are points in dispute that would help the administration achieve its priority goal of improving student outcomes.” In October, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board appointed a third-party arbitrator to review sticking points, including contract lengths, salaries, teacher scheduling and health care benefits.
That fact-finder agreed with Pittsburgh Superintendent Anthony Hamlet about giving principals the authority to set schedules and teaching assignments. Currently, teachers can override principals in the decision-making process.
The PPS board approved the fact finder’s report while the PFT executive board rejected the suggestions. The parties went back to the bargaining table after Thanksgiving.
“The job of educating young people cannot be done by disempowering educators and placing the district in a less competitive position," Esposito-Visgitis said.