"We are on a shoot-out course," said Washington Teachers Union President William Simons, discussing negotiations between the union and the District of Columbia Board of Education over a new teachers' contract. "And we (the union) aren't going to back down. If they want a strike now is the time for a strike."
According to union and school board officials, the bargaining over the teachers' contract is at a standstill as a Jan. 16 deadline for a settlement approaches.
In separate interviews, Simons and Board President Minnie S. Woodson agreed that none of the main issues separating the board and the union have been negotiated and most of those issues have not even been discussed.
The negotiations come at a time when the school board has been receiving criticism from parents, some city political figures and others about the quality of education in the school system. Test scores by District students on national standardized tests have placed them among the worst in the nation in comparison with test scores achieved by students throughout the nation, including other bigcity districts. Much of the concern about the city's schools has focused on the quality and commitment of teachers.
The major issues still to be engotiated in the next nine days include board proposals to lengthen the school day and the school year; to limit, in several ways, the amount of say that teachers have in the administration of schools and new and limited leave and grievance procedures for teachers.
The union's major proposals to the board include changes in policy and procedure for evaluating teachers; grading and disciplining students; an agency fee that would require all teachers, including nonunion members, to pay union dues; special training for students and teachers in open space schools; a new policy on hiring substitute teachers for every absent classroom teacher and a new policy allowing teachers to transfer schools because of hardships.
A major problem for the school board in negotiations with the teachers union is that the board does not set wage scales for the teachers. The salaries are set by the D.C. City Council and by Congress.
Simons said he sent a letter to the school board this weekend saying that "as far as I can discern there has been a deliberately calculated program of stalling and stonewalling at the bargaining table (by the board's negotiators) to provoke a confrontation. The time spent in negoliotions has been unproductive because of the actions of the boards negotiating team."
During a short speech Simons gave Saturday night at a Greater Washington Central Labor Council dinner. dance the union president said: "It looks as if there might be a little trouble ahead."
Then turning to newly elected District Mayor Marion Barry, Simons added: "He (Barry) is going to get his baptism in labor relations early here in the District of Columbia."
Walter E. Washington, the former mayor who spoke after Simons, also turned to Barry and told the new mayor to take the threat of a teachers' strike seriously.
The only time the teachers union has held a strike here was for two weeks in 1972.
Simons said his union will not negotiate past the Jan. 16 deadline, when the extension of the contract between the union and the board expires, unless the board agrees to extend the contract again.
But at the negotiating session Friday, Simons said he was told by the board's negotiators that the board will not reinstate the contract if a settlement is not reached by the 16th.
"When I asked if they would be willing to extened the contract," Simons said, "they told me 'no, that's the end.'"
School board president Woodson, a former school teacher in Washington who quit the teachers union because of disagreements she had then with union leadership, said the union's intent during the negotiations has been to make gains for teachers to "the detriment of educational programs in the schools.
"We extended that contract with the hope that we (the board and the union) could have worked through the new contract by now," Woodson said. "The talks are just taking too long and I want to know why it is taking so long."
Woodson said the board plans to meet with its negotiators before Jan. 16 to find out it the union is negotiating or using stall tactics at the bargaining table. She said she personally feels that teachers should always have a contract but she will not vote to reinstate the contract if the union is intentionally delaying negotiations.
"The union has not been assessing the articles of the contract in terms of improving the total education program in the schools," Woodson said."So far their intent doesn't appear to be to help the educational program but to keep us (the board) in a vise."
Before negotiations began several school board members, including then-school board president Conrad Smith, told the union that the board intended to seek major changes in the new contract. At that time Smith said the board was displeased with several concessions made by the board in prior contract negotiations.
"We have a dichotomy in this town with teachers," Simons said. "We talk about teachers as professionals -- professionals who should have the right to make decisions about how they do their work, the conditions under which they work... but when it comes contract time the board doesn't want teachers in on policy-making decisions. Teachers aren't professionals then..."
Woodson said that part of the problem slowing negotiations between the board and the union is that the board is no longer willing to negotiate policy issues such as class size, when and how a teacher's classroom can be monitored, and how a student can be disciplined by a teacher.
"The present contract takes away some of the power that is vested in the board," Woodson said. "The board is elected to set policy for the public schools, not the union, and we are no longer willing to negotiate policy issues."
A small sampling of teachers in the city found that teachers say they are ready to strike if it is necessary.
"The board is just playing games," said Alvin Seldon, a sixth grade teacher at Raymond Elementary School. "They are asking us to work longer without wanting to pay us for it. That's a slavery tactic."
Kevin Riddick, a science teacher at Woodson Junior High School, said many of the board's demands are not reasonable.
"It is going to come to a strike," he said. "The longer day and things like that... teachers can't stand for that. It isn't going to help students to be in a place for an extra hour if they aren't learning anything in the first place. Helping students should be the bottom line."
Board member Carol Schwartz (Ward 3) said the contract negotiations have not progressed because the union is pleased with its current contract and is not in a hurry to get a new contract.
"The name of the game for them," said Schwartz, vice president of the board, "is to extend that contract to doomsday. The name of the game is not to seriously negotiate. They've got a good contract and they know it. If I was a teacher I would want to keep it too."
On Friday, Barry, who said during his mayoral campaign that his administration would actively seek to rejuvenate the school system, announced that he intends to name a commissioner of education for Washington as the first step in reaction to a report on public education by his transition task force.
The Jan. 16 deadline was set in October when the union and the board came to the brink of a strike. The board averted the strike with a lastminute compromise the night before the strike was to have started. The compromise included reinstatement of the contract with the teachers union that had expired in January 1978.
Reinstatement of the contract was crucial to the union because the contract includes automatic union dues check-off on teachers' paychecks.