The pressure was on.
The auditorium at Bunker Hill Elementary School was packed with parents, children and angry, striking teachers. It was the second day of the teachers' strike and school board members sat in the front of the auditorium, listening to insults shouted by teachers and snide bickering from board members who didn't support what the majority of the board was doing.
In the middle of the head table -- and in the middle of the pressure -- sat a gray-haired, 58-year-old retired teacher who never wanted to be president of the D.C. school board: Minnie S. Woodson.
The pressure began to focus on Woodson. William Brown, a parent, criticized Woodson's leadership of the board, saying that the board may be responsible for causing the strike. He complained that Carol Schwartz, vice president of the board, is quoted in newspapers and on TV more often than board president Woodson. Woodson said nothing.
Frank Shaffer-Corona, school board member at large and a member of a faction on the board that doesn't support Woodson, took the microphone. Woodson could not respond to Brown, he said, because "Mrs. Schwartz isn't here." There were snickers and giggles from the crowd.
School board member Bettie Benjamin (Ward 5) spoke, "I do not intend to associate myself with remarks made by Mr. Shaffer-Corona, although I agree with them," she said.
The crowd broke into laughter.
Woodson stood and walked out.
"They didn't make me leave," Woodson said the next day. "I left because it was not at all a positive meeting. At that point... some board members had said things that were not at all positive."
Later Woodson, an elementary school teacher for 18 years, added: "Throughout this whole strike... the teacher part of me is upset. I ask teachers if they've read the contract, if they know the proposals, and they say no. That upsets me."
On Saturday the pressure was on again. The night before, Mayor Marion Barry sent a proposal for ending the strike to her home in Northeast Washington. Woodson, and the majority of the board, said no.
That morning a court hearing to determine whether the teachers' union was in contempt of court was recessed to allow union president William Simons to go to the mayor's office to meet with Barry. Neither Woodson nor any other board member was asked to meet with the mayor. Woodson stood outside the courtroom with her husband, John, a constant adviser. Their gray miniature poodle was in the car outside.
"I feel puzzlement more than pressure," Woodson said. "So many of the politicians are suddenly standing up and speaking. They see the strike as an opportunity to gain some political status rather than to better the education of the children in Washington, D.C.
"I've seen so many people stand up and start talking in the last few days that now all I do is sit back and ask myself what is his hidden agenda, what is her hidden agenda.... I can't understand why everybody suddenly wants a piece of the action. Most of them didn't want anything to do with the D.C. schools before and they probably won't be interested in them once this [the strike] is over."
"It's difficult for the hardball, political types to appreciate her," said Alaire Rieffel, school board member from Ward 2. "But after you've watched her for a while you see that she has a very logical and consistent view of the world. She's true to her own world.
"I think she's terrific," Rieffel said.
In her three months as board president Woodson has been less than "terrific" for some board members, particularly a four-member, dissident faction of the board that opposes Woodson's six-member majority.
Asked what he thought of her leadership, Shaffer-Corona, a member of the minority faction, said: "Her what?"
"When I found out that the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) was honoring Mrs. Woodson as educator of the city, in all good faith I couldn't attend. Philosophical differences withstanding, I couldn't be a part of that."
Woodson, a reading specialist in the city schools for nine years after she finished her career as an elementary school teacher, is an unlikely person to be facing off with a union and "hardball" politicians in a labor dispute. A straightforward person who will wear white cotton gloves on a warm sunny day, Woodson finds herself in a world of aggressive bargaining tactics, name-calling, and back-stabbing.
But much of Woodson's success is due to her gentle, unthreatening presence.
She was a compromise candidate to be president of the board last December when she won the position by a vote of 7 to 4. On a splintered school board, divided by strong personalities as much as by idelogies, Woodson was one of the few board members who could get the backing of seven of her colleagues.
Her candidacy was not seen as a threat by other members of the board -- most of whom wanted the presidency -- at least partly because of expecations that she will not seek reelection to the board this year, leaving the board presidency wide open to aspiring board members next year.
Woodson, who says "I never campaigned to be president of this board, I never asked for the job" was the choice of board politicians who were trying to keep together a working majority.
But Woodson, a mother of two grown men -- who like their mother, are graduates of D.C. public schools -- is growing tougher as her job gets tougher.
"The politicians, Mayor Barry," she said. "They don't understand what we're trying to do to improve the schools....
"All politicians have to be endorsed," she said, apparently referring to the teachers' union endorsement of Barry in the 1978 mayoral election. "I don't believe in endorsements. Endorsements mean you have strings attached to you. When I ran for the school board I didn't get the teachers' union endorsement. I went to their meeting and I told them exactly what I stood for and they didn't endorse me. That's fine with me. If they won't take me the way I am, they don't have to take me. I told them my principal concern was to represent the parents and the children in this school system."
Woodson sees the board's proposals to the union in the current negotiations as the first steps toward laying a solid organizational base for a good school system.
"Accountability," she said. "This is what this whole thing is about from the board's point of view, accountability. This school system has never been able to properly evaluate a superintendent because we didn't have a proper system of accountability. The way things have been if something was wrong with the schools and you asked the superintendent why things were wrong, he would point to the teachers' contract"... The teachers' contract was running the school system; that was where school policy was being set.
"... I feel we need a clear chain of responsibility and accountability in the school system in order to improve it. We need parent responsibility, we need responsibility from teachers who have a good contract -- with job security -- but they have to be responsible for what goes on in their classrooms, accountable to principals. We want principals to be the leaders of the educational guidance in every school building. And we want the superintendent to be responsible for what his principals are doing so he can be evaluated when his contract comes before the board."
What Woodson sees as growing accountability for everyone who works for the school system -- from the superintendent down to teachers -- is seen by the teachers' union as an encroaching dictatorship in which the board and administrators will control the schools. The teachers, the union fears, would be left without control over the rules and decisions about what goes on in their classrooms.
The union has said that it does not intend to give up rights to participate in decisions made by principals and school system administrators. The union gained those rights in collective bargaining with the board beginning in 1967.
Woodson sees the teachers' union as an organization that took advantage of school boards that were new to bargaining and now have a grip on educational policy decisions, paralyzing school board attempts to improve schools.
"When negotiations between the board and the union began in 1967, the board was naive," Woodson said. "It was all new to them. They practically gave the school system away to the union in that 1967 contract... We intend to give the school system back ot the children and the parents, the people the school system is supposed to work for... and take it away from teachers, who work for the school system."