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Teachers’ Union President, Board Members Question City School District’s Proposed COVID Relief Spending

Robert F. Bukaty

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said Thursday she is disturbed that the city school district proposed spending more than $8 million on online educational tools without what she called significant teacher input.

She said she found out about the district's proposals just before Wednesday’s meeting, where the Pittsburgh Public Schools board reviewed the agenda ahead of its voting meeting next week. The district unveiled a package of more that 20 programs ranging from $4 million on a platform that provides “engaging instructional opportunities for differentiated, remedial and accelerated content” in math, literacy and social studies to $500,000 for a online platform with lessons on social-emotional learning.

Esposito-Visgitis said she met with Superintendent Anthony Hamlet Wednesday morning and he did not mention the proposals to her.

“Once again, this was done under a shroud of secrecy,” she said. “I don’t really know who else knew about it. I heard a few teachers were involved in the design, I haven’t confirmed that. That would surprise me.”

The PFT has been without a teacher’s contract for a year and is in negotiations with the district.

District officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But when board members questioned the quality and need for the programs at Wednesday's meeting, Hamlet assured them that his staff vetted each of the at least 20 proposals.

“This staff who are on this call and the additional staff who work on these supports, we’re not bringing you something that we’re not confident is going to work for our children. That just doesn’t make sense for me and I would never let it happen,” he said.

Hamlet has been criticized before for spending large sums on resources, known as “ed tech” by educators. In 2019, KDKA reported that under Hamlet’s tenure, the district spent more than $14 million in three years on similar contracts. Hamlet retorted that the reporting made “it seem as if I’m doing something that’s nefarious or illegal, which is not the case,” Hamlet told the New Pittsburgh Courier.

Board member Pam Harbin said Wednesday that she understood there was a need for digital learning curricula, but said that she feared buying too many online tools would turn teaching into facilitating.

“I don’t think these programs should be used by students as anything more than supplemental. I’m getting lots of parent concerns about students using some of these programs that we already have, and they’re not being used well,” she said.

Harbin asked for a master list of all of the online tools the district uses. She said the proposals were unclear if they were new programs or were replacing old resources.

Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins said Wednesday that none of the programs replace teachers or core curriculum. She said the majority of the products are currently being used by the district, though she didn't specify which products are new.

"These are all supplemental tools," she said. "Most of these products when we did the (request for proposal) process we made sure they were aligned to the specific need."

Esposito-Visgitis said she wants the district to first prioritize accessible internet in all schools. In spring and summer of 2020 the district spent millions buying computers for all students, something administrators have said they’ve never previously had the money to do.

The district did spend part of the $50 million it received in the second round of federal relief funding for schools to expand and upgrade its wireless network. Spokesperson Ebony Pugh said the upgrades have been underway over break.

Hamlet promised more details for board members before Wednesday’s voting meeting.