As a Wednesday strike deadline approaches the D.C. school board and the Washington Teachers' Union both say no progress has been made in negotiations on a new contract for the city's public school teachers.
The failure to reach an agreement -- even with the help of federal mediators who were asked to join the talks last month when a strike threat was averted -- prolongs the fear of a teachers' strike that has loomed over city schools since they opened in September.
The Wednesday deadline was set last month when the school board agreed to extend the expired contract with the teachers' union for a third time. Negotiations could continue if the board agrees to another extension.
But several board members said in interviews that they would be opposed to that if they are told by their negotiators in a briefing Monday that there has been no forward movement in the talks.
"The last time we extended it," said R. Calvin Lockridge, the Ward 8 representative on the board, "when we extended it for 30 days (in January), seven or eight of us (board members) were sitting there and we said this will be the last time. We gave them 30 days so the public could understand that we've been lenient and tolerant with them.
"You see, parents want their kids in school. When a strike comes down the first thing they do is get mad and blame the school board for the schools being closed... we gave them (the teachers' union) 30 days so the public could understand who is atalling, who is closing the schools."
William Simons, president of the teachers' union, said last week the board is stalling the talks by not bringing new proposals to the table.
"I'm just biding my time," said Simons. "I haven't got a deadline, they've got a deadline... If they act stupidly they will get a stupid response, "I can tell you there will be no talks unless the contract is extended. There will be a strike."
The current impasse in negotiations is the fourth time since the start of the school year that there has been an immediate threat of a teacher strike.
"Parents and students seem to be left out of these considerations," said Bert Anderson, persident of the D.C. Citizens for Better Public education."They have real differences and it is time to settle it and get on with education. It is distressing to parents and students... to be left up in the air so long."
The negotiations come at a time when the school board has been strongly criticized by parents, politicians and others about the quality of education in the city's schools. Improving the performance of the pupils was an issue in last summer and fall's political campaigns.
In order to get improvement, board members have argued that they must get tighter control over school operations and win back in this round of negotiations many concessions made to the union in past contracts. Board members have indicated that they especially want to change provisions of the existing contract that give teachers and the union influence in the shaping of educational policy.
Teacher pay, which is decided by the City Council and Congress, is not an issue in the talks, but board members have noted that city teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and that they expect them to work harder. Two controversial issues in the negotiations are the board's proposal to increase the number of hours that teachers work each day and extend the number of days in the school year.
The union proposals include a new requirement that administrators who evaluate a teachers' performance have knowledge of that teacher's subject area, a new policy that would give teachers greater latitude in disciplining students, and a new transfer policy that would allow teachers to transfer out of schools for hardship reasons, such as poor relationships with administrators.
Reinstatement of the teachers' expired contract is crucial to avoiding a strike brcaruse the contract provides for deduction of union dues on teacher paychecks, the union's prime source of income.
Further complicating the labor talks is an increasingly bitter dispute between factions on the school board.
Last week, Barbara Lett Simmons, a member of a minority on the board that does not support Board President Minnie S. Woodson, used a parliamentary tactic to cancel a meeting in which the board was to be briefed on the status of contract talks with the union. Simmons said the meeting was called improperly.
Simmons is part of a four-member faction on the 10-member board that generally is prolabor and supportive of the teachers' demands. That group is battling the majority on the board about various issues, especially committee assignments and chairmanships set under Woodson's recent reorganization of the school board.
Simmons said she was abiding by board rules when she complained that Thursday's meeting about the contract talks was called improperly. Simmons recently was removed as head of the committee on adult and career education and made chairwoman of the board's committee on bulidings and grounds.
When Simmons was asked if the move that led to cancellation of Thursday's meeting was politically motivated, she said:
"Anyone who didn't vote for Minnie Woodson is supposed to be punished. There is a system of punishments and rewards so she gave me buildings and grounds to punish me. That's stupid. There's no way she can punish me."