11 Investigates: Pittsburgh teachers blindsided by furlough notices

PITTSBURGH — Less than a month before the start of the school year, furlough notices went out to Pittsburgh Public School teachers, blindsiding the teachers and their union.

“I felt kind of like — how do they wait until the end? It’s like you’re sentenced to death, but they wait until the end to tell you,” PPS teacher John Robertson, who was one of 31 teachers who received the furlough notices, said.

Robertson taught 4th grade math at Linden Elementary School in Point Breeze last school year but was bumped this year due to seniority. He was holding out hope that he’d get another assignment, until getting the furlough letter, last week, which was emailed to him.

“It’s cold. And you realize this is a business. You’re just a number. Here, this number is furloughed. Bye, see ya, thanks,” he said.

With the first day of school just weeks away, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers told 11 Investigates they were hoping to escape any furloughs this year, despite declining enrollment, because the district didn’t notify them that lay-offs were imminent.

Union President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said that broke with past protocol.

“Absolutely shocked. This is not the usual way the district goes about this,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “We never like layoffs, but it’s usually done in a more structured manner and in conjunction with the PFT, so that our members have more notice.”

Decreasing enrollment blamed

Robertson has been an elementary school teacher for the past 12 years — 10 years at Philadelphia Public Schools and the past two years at Pittsburgh Public Schools, after moving here for his grandkids.

His furlough letter said due to “decreasing student enrollment” there was a recommendation to the school board for “personnel reductions.”

Despite being a teacher for more than a decade, with low seniority at PPS, Robertson was among those laid off.

“It’s not a good feeling,” he said. “I want to get out there and teach math. I want to teach math and technology — especially to the marginalized kids and get them ready for the future.”

Critical Teacher Shortage

The furloughs come on the heels of a news conference by the Pennsylvania Department of Education talking about a critical teachers’ shortage in the state and announcing the state would ease requirements for out-of-state teachers to come here.

“My biggest thing is if you’re going to say there’s a shortage tell us where there’s a shortage, because it’s obviously not in Pittsburgh,” Robertson said.

PPS has been battling declining enrollment for years. Over the past seven years, they lost more than 4000 students, with the numbers accelerating since COVID.

Esposito-Visgitis told 11 Investigates there is a critical teachers shortage, but it’s in specific areas, including teachers who are certified in math, special ed, and foreign languages.

Most of the teachers laid off in PPS this year were in elementary education, which is not experiencing a shortage at this time.

Still hopeful for callbacks

Exposito-Visgitis says she is still hopeful, however, that many furloughed teachers will get called back at least for temporary jobs, as has happened in years past.

“Three people have been called back already to fill place holder positions to fill positions of people on medical leave.”

A PPS spokesperson told 11 Investigates, the district was required by contract to send out “preliminary” furlough notices by August first; and that “it is anticipated that the number will decrease based on attrition and school needs prior to the start of school.”

The first day of school for PPS is August 23rd. As of today, the district says 26 teachers are on furlough.

Robertson, meanwhile, is still processing that he won’t have a classroom to go back to this fall, after more than a decade.

He hopes he will either find another job or that PPS students will start coming back, so he can get a permanent full-time position.

“Pittsburgh Public is back in person, so the internet stuff that was a nightmare is over. So, they should come back — hopefully they come back because we have a good product!”

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