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Without Union Approval, Pittsburgh Public Schools Return Remains Uncertain

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- In the past week, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet has gotten an earful from parents angry at the delay in the start of school 18 months into the pandemic. But amid calls for his resignation, Hamlet asked for unity behind his reopening plan.

"This is our collective moment of truth for all sides to come together, for all sides to ensure we get this right," he said.

Pittsburgh Public School administrators answered questions from frustrated parents during a "Community Talk Back" virtual community event.

The problem, Hamlet said, is a shortage of bus drivers. Last week, school administrators pushed back the start of the year to Sept. 8, citing a number of issues including the pandemic and the seat gap for transportation.

The district says it is 356 short of the 792 need, resulting in a so-called seat gap for 5,900 students. To address this, the district has proposed staggering the start and closing times of schools to allow the available drivers to make trips to three or more schools in a single day. School officials say they are also partnering with various groups like the Port Authority, the City of Pittsburgh and ABC Transit.

"When we were still coming up short seats for students, we knew we had to make district-wide start time changes. These start time changes are linked to the tentative agreement with the PFT [Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers], and once we learned the process for approval of these changes would not be completed until at least Aug. 25, we immediately notified the stakeholders to change the first day of school," PPS Assistant Director of Construction and Planning Mike McNamara said.

The plan must be approved by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and is part of a tentative contract agreement between the union and the district. But it must be approved in a ratification vote by the membership and the results are not due until next week. If the membership doesn't approve the plan, the board attorney Ira Weiss conceded the district will not be able to provide full-time classroom instruction.

"The district will be unable to transport students five days a week," Weiss said

Calls to the union went unanswered but Squirrel Hill parent Abbie Campsie, who organized a parent protest last week, said this potential stumbling block is one more black eye against the district.

"They're saying that our kids won't go back to school unless everyone agrees to these spur-of-the-moment changes. It's more of the same," she said.

And while Superintendent Hamlet says the district is committed to five-day a week classroom instruction, that will not be certain until the union membership votes. The results will not be known until a week from Monday.

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