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Education

In A ‘Compromise,’ City School Board Unanimously Votes To Start School Sept. 3

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA

Students in Pittsburgh Public Schools will return to classrooms in-person on Sept. 3., eight days after the original return date. The nine-member board voted unanimously on the new date in what several called a compromise.

The board was set to vote to return students on Sept. 8. But hours before the vote, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet sent a robocall to parents saying he would propose the 3rd in an attempt to get students back earlier. He said the decision was made after hearing feedback this week.

The board heard testimony from nearly 120 students, parents and staff over two days about the proposed delay.

Hamlet and his administration have said they needed more time to address a bus driver shortage. The district approved transportation contracts with two companies last month and said those companies need time to onboard new drivers.

Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the district said it was short on transportation for nearly 11,000 students. It has expanded the “walking zones” around schools to eliminate transportation for those students, moved more students to riding Port Authority buses and asked parents to “give up your seat.”

Board member Cindy Falls said Wednesday that the board had no part in deciding the new start date.

“I think if we are going to have transparency, that needs to be said,” she said.

PPS Chief of Staff Errika Fearby Jones said the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers “did collaborate” on the shifted schedule. District Solicitor Ira Weiss said the calendar change was presented to PFT leadership Wednesday and said “he believed they were in agreement."

Board member Terry Kennedy said the Sept. 3 start date was a good compromise.

“At this point in time even though I would love to start school Aug. 25, it is not possible,” she said.

Board member Sala Udin said he would approve of the “compromised” date, but said he hopes it wouldn’t be the way the district continues to do business. He thanked those who spoke during the public hearing, saying the change was made because of their comments.

“[The calendar change] should have been handled more professionally and sooner,” he said. “I think the public deserves more and better and they should have gotten it and we don’t want to let this become the baseline way of doing things. We have to do better.”

A Bus Shortage And Technology Delay

Board member Pam Harbin criticized the district’s communication with the community.

“I know a lot of it is unavoidable but some of it is avoidable. We really need to make sure we need to work with the community sooner,” Harbin said. “This does create hardship and I apologize for that.”

When Harbin asked why it wouldn’t be feasible to maintain the original start date of Aug. 25, Director of Transportation Megan Patton said if the board moved to keep the original Aug. 25 date about 9,000 students wouldn’t have transportation.

Board member Bill Gallagher asked for a timeline about when the district realized it had a transportation problem.

Fearby Jones said that central office has been working on the transportation issue since last school year. She said two to three months ago they learned that a tiered bus schedule would have to be approved by the teachers’ union because it’s a work time change.

McNamara said that once they learned that they needed the district-wide shift, the administration took the change to the PFT.

“The timing of it isn’t great, but the fact of the matter is we have always been trying to get the maximum number of students to school since we started this process last year,” McNamara said.

Others asked why the district couldn’t start remotely on Aug. 25.

Chief Technology Officer Mark Stuckey said Wednesday that not all devices are ready. The district spent millions last year buying computers and tablets for all students. Stuckey said more than 1,000 devices were not returned to the district and nearly 2,000 had to be fixed.

Interim Chief Operations Officer Mike McNamara said that a critical piece of the puzzle is still unknown until the union votes on its contract. After negotiating since Jan. 2020, the PFT and district came to an agreement last month that includes shifted school start times. The district proposed the shifts to make more efficient use of the drivers it has and plans to use a tiered schedule so that drivers will pick up multiple routes.

“Without knowing what the PFT vote will be, it’s hard to know how many students will be impacted, McNamara said. “This gives us a little more time to make changes if we need to.”

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

Hamlet Apologizes

Board members said they’ve heard from concerned constituents who feel disrespected over the how the process was handled. Board member Kevin Carter said he hoped that the administration would apologize to the community so that, “we can move forward stronger together.”

“We do need to accept the blame for how late we got this out,” Carter said.

After all board members spoke, Hamlet apologized to families for the, “ill will caused.”

“We do not want you to be upset or have ill feelings about this,” he said. “I apologize as your leader and we will get better.”

The board will vote on a tentative agreement with the PFT Aug. 25. The agreement includes the shifted school start and end times. The board meeting can be streamed at pghschools.org.