The Bus Comes for You


Nina Esposito-Visgitis holds the respectable position of President of The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, a long-standing union of actual good repute in Western Pennsylvania. Taking over from John Tarka just this year, Ms. Esposito-Visgitis was probably sitting back after the Pennsylvania primary believing that with that season behind her, she could now indulge herself to a little easy time.  The PFT was recognized for having a successful relationship with the Pittsburgh Board of Education. After all, John had written this glowing post for the Huffington Post before his retirement.  With a Board composed of Democrats (it isPittsburgh after all) cruise control is a perk of the job.  She just didn’t see the bus coming.


Actually, that bus was parked behind a Trojan horse that was left behind by former President Tarka and former Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt.  In case you are wondering, yes it is the same Mark Roosevelt who had a failed bid to be Massachusetts’s governor in 1994.  How does a failed politician become a school district superintendent?  By attending the Broad Urban Superintendent’s Academy, an entity fully funded by Eli Broad (rhymes with road) through his Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.  With those credentials in his pocket, and Governor Ed Rendell at the helm of Pennsylvania at the time, Mark Roosevelt had a golden pathway to the position.


During his tenure at Pittsburgh Public Schools, Mr. Roosevelt enacted many new programs and ideas all taken from his legislative days in Massachusetts. The result was a school district that continues to hemorrhage population and students.  But in the Progressive handbook, this was a success because he was able to create the Pittsburgh Promise and achieved grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the district.  On its face, the Pittsburgh Promise is a laudable goal and has been embraced by the corporate community in Pittsburgh.  The program is a basic scholarship program that gives students up to $10,000.00 per year for 4 years if the student maintains a 2.5 average during their attendance in Pittsburgh schools, graduate from school and attend a university located within Pennsylvania.


The $40 Million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was where the Trojan horse entered the picture.  One of the conditions set forth for the grant was a provision where the union would allow flexibility in the compensation rules for the rewarding of those teachers whose performance was better than the rest.  Another laudable goal on its surface, it was fraught with problems that connected it to the seniority system already in place.  The back end implied that seniority could be pushed aside for performance bonuses and thus makes seniority a flexible concept in the other areas where it applied.  Such as how to determine which teachers could be furloughed or outright eliminated.


Ms. Esposito-Visgitis may not have realized what a Trojan horse this has become.  Therefore, when the Pittsburgh Board of Education met on Wednesday, April 25, 2012, it would have been a complete surprise that by a vote of 8 to 1 the board directed Superintendent Linda Lane to look at ways to use other methods to determine furloughed teachers other than seniority.  The reason: New teachers such as those hired to turn around Pittsburgh Faison in the Homewood district of Pittsburgh could lose their jobs despite their performance due to seniority.  The back end argument being that if you found teachers to pay the performance rewards to, how do you then justify furloughing those same teachers?  Trojan horse moves aside and the bus went barreling right at Ms. Esposito-Visgitis.


This caused a flurry of actions by Ms. Esposito-Visgitis on Thursday, April 26, 2012.  What she wanted to make sure she did was to assure the membership of her union that seniority was going to remain the determining factor in the realm of furloughs.  Ms. Lane, in the meantime, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that they were at the beginning of the discussions and process on this issue and she was sure there was a path to resolution.  This is a natural enough assumption based upon her background and the stated purposes of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.


The interesting thing here at the onset is how the membership of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers views this kamikaze attack on their ranks.  Not that a Pittsburgh union member should be shocked at what happens between politicians and unions here.  The United Steelworkers Union had every assurance Pittsburgh would be okay when the steel industry was killed here by a combination of the newly-formed EPA and Carter Administration.  Democrat Mayor Tom Murphy made deals with the firefighter’s union that has seen prosecutions and firefighter lay-offs.


Will the rank and file decide to blame it on Tom Corbett, the present Republican Governor, or will they see through the thin veneer?  Ms. Esposito-Visgitis has probably already been summoned to the inner-sanctum to have the finer details explained to her.  She will be made to see the error of her ways and the young, less-paid teachers at Pittsburgh Faison will keep their jobs while a few “senior” teachers will be let go.  Just like in the private sector, unionized senior employees cost more.  Let a private firm try to thin those ranks and we hear about the terrible greed of the capitalists.  Have it happen in a government entity run on a one-party system, and we have compassionate interference.  But the precedent will be set and more senior teachers will disappear to be replaced by the cheaper Broad-bots.


Solace can be taken from the idea that Pittsburgh’s decline is continuing ala Detroit, so in the end there will be very few children exposed to this atrocity.


One thing we can count on is that the rank and file of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and Ms. Esposito-Visgitis will get to see what the underside of a bus looks like.