Friday, May 28, 2010

Pittsburgh: Rift develops in city teachers union

Rift develops in city teachers union

Friday, May 28, 2010

By Karamagi Rujumba, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The fallout from an election of four new executive board members of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers this week highlights what some teachers say is a growing schism between the union's leadership and its 2,700 members.

Their election to the board marks the first time that challengers defeated incumbent officers in a union election in at least 30 years.

The four who won the seats -- teachers at Pittsburgh Carrick High School - - contend their victory in Monday's election shows how dissatisfied their ranks are with union leaders.

Running on a "teachers for change" slate, science teacher Dale Moss defeated George Gensure as the union's vice president for high schools, and business teacher Ed McManus defeated longtime union secretary Sylvia Wilson.

Mark Sammartino, a math teacher and longtime critic of the union's leadership, was elected as an at-large member to the executive board as was Dawn Garland, a special education teacher.

The group won four of the 16 positions open on the 32-member board.

Two days after their victory, however, the teachers said they were shocked to receive a note from union President John Tarka notifying them that Mr. Moss and Mr. McManus will not assume their positions as staff members at union headquarters on the South Side on July 1, the start of their four-year terms.

Instead, they said, Mr. Tarka told them that Mr. Moss and Mr. McManus will remain in their teaching positions at Carrick, while Mr. Gensure and Ms. Wilson -- whom they defeated-- would keep their jobs as union staff members at district headquarters.

In doing so, the group contends, Mr. Tarka overruled the will of the members who voted for a change of leadership in key staff positions at district headquarters. The teachers also said that Mr. Moss and Mr. McManus cannot take on what are full-time positions at the district and remain teachers at Carrick at the same time.

Mr. Tarka did not return calls for comment Thursday.

"The staff people are the ones who really run the union. We can't take on these positions on a part-time basis," said Mr. Moss, who has taught in the district for 19 years. "As teachers, our schedules wouldn't allow us to sit in on grievances, contract negotiations or any other issues that might come up."

The group, which collected 50 signatures at five city schools to run as a slate of four candidates, campaigned on one theme: "To have the union get back to representing the views of the membership."

Their campaign theme was inspired by a sense that the union's leadership has been drifting out of touch with the views and concerns of its membership for years now, said Ms. Garland, who has 16 years in the district.

A case in point, she said, is the recent change in the process of transferring and filling vacancies within schools in the district, which union officials implemented without as much as a survey of their membership.

"They just issued a memorandum of understanding that changed a key aspect of our [collective bargaining] contract without getting much input from us," Ms. Garland said.

Mr. McManus, who has taught in city schools for 31 years, pointed to the union's adoption of the Empowering Effective Teachers Plan -- a move to implement performance pay as part of the $40 million grant that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the district -- as another example where the union sought no input from its members.

"They went and sat down with the district administration and worked out this plan, never sought our input and then came back to sell the plan to us," Mr. McManus said.

Mr. Sammartino, who has taught math for 20 years, said: "Leadership just doesn't have its finger on the pulse of the members."

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