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‘We Need You To Do Better’: Parents Call For City School District Accountability In Public Hearing

Pittsburgh Public Schools Protest Signs.jpg
Julia Zenkevich
90.5 WESA
Families protest a delayed start of the school year outside of the Pittsburgh Public Schools administrative building in Oakland on Aug. 11.

For nearly four hours on Monday, Pittsburgh Public Schools staff read testimonies from parents, students and community members who urged the board to not delay the start of the school year.

The special virtual hearing was scheduled late last week after Superintendent Anthony Hamlet announced during a Tuesday morning press conference that his administration planned to delay the school year by two weeks to address a bus driver shortage.

Overall, parents said Monday night that they were more frustrated by the last-minute announcement and lack of communication and transparency than by the actual delay.

They asked for accountability, and several called for a vote of no confidence in Hamlet. As parent Lara Stunkel said, “We have to wonder if you will keep your word. Time and again you have switched on us without warning and all of that cannot be blamed on COVID.”

“We’re angry that decisions from the administration are put forth as already decided when the board hasn’t voted on it yet. We’re angry that so close to the beginning of the school year, the start time for our schools is still up in the air. And we’re angry that the proposed start times are so early for our high schoolers and so late for our elementary students. The list goes on and on. Families are angry and we are tired,” Stunkel said.

Sept. 8 is listed as the start date on the district’s website and posts on the district’s social media accounts announced that all students would return then, even though the board has yet to vote on the calendar change. A special meeting to do so is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Aug. 18.

Next week, the board will vote on adjusted school start times. School start time changes must be included in a bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the district have been negotiating a contract since Jan. 2020 and came to an agreement earlier this month. The new agreement includes adjusted school start and end times which the district says will allow the drivers it does have to be more efficient and drive more routes.

PFT members are voting on the contract by mail and results are expected Aug. 23.

Sept. 8 is also the second day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. The first day of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 7, is a school holiday, though as several parents and teachers noted, they will have to decide whether to miss the first day of school after more than a year of remote learning or miss a holiday they typically observe. Many called the move discriminatory.

Many parents also noted Monday that the district has provided contradicting messages explaining the delay. The robocall to families started by saying the delay would prevent students and staff from having to wear masks during hot weather. As several teachers noted in their testimonies Monday, the two-week delay will push school into June and as Pittsburgh Sci-Tech teachers Patricia Barbas and Stephanie Theuret said, the schools without air conditioning are just as hot in September as they are in August.

After the district's mask reasoning, the robocall shifted to transportation, the issue the district had highlighted at last weeks' press conference.

During a Facebook Live session on Monday, Hamlet said that if the district does not find transportation for all students in time, hybrid learning could be an option.

“If we can’t get to it, get to all of our students being transported, we have to look at some hybrid form or fashion to make sure school starts on the 8th,” he said.

Parents said they worried that the delay meant more last-minute decisions to come. As Colfax parent Larissa Evans said, “we need you to do better.”

“We need you to set realistic targets and hold to them,” Evans said. “The proposal to delay school hinders my ability to be present and perform at my new job. It creates a sense of unpredictability for both my son and I that is stressful and negatively impacts our well-being. It was stressful and chaotic scrambling to accommodate and change logistically.”

Community organizations that helped scrambling parents after the district announced the proposed delay said that lack of transparency was the core issue.

Last year, groups dedicated to supporting families directly formed the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative in response to the pandemic. Kaitlyn Brennan, an education policy advisor and facilitator of the collaborative, said after the announcement last week the group jumped on a video call.

“As we tried to organize our collective resources to support families, we were met with blank stares from our partners as they proceeded to tell us that they literally don’t have the capacity financially and logistically to provide this type of emergency care in response to district decisions,” Brennan said.

The public hearing will continue Tuesday at 2 p.m. It can be streamed at pghschools.org.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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