There is a conspiracy theory of the school strike, some teachers say, and it goes like this:
The D.C. school board wants to "bust" the mostly black Washington Teachers' Union as part of a master plan to prepare Washington for suburban white familes who are waiting only for the D.C. public schools to shape up before moving into the city.
"Yes, I've heard that too," said Hazel Brown, a teacher at K. C. Lewis Elementary who has remained on the picket line despite the length of the strike. "It's probably true.... I wonder, if the majority of teachers in the city were white, if you would hear so much about teachers in the city being overpaid."
R. Calvin Lockridge, school board member from Ward 8, heard the conspiracy theory at a recent meeting he held with striking teachers. "I told them if there is a conspiracy by whites to have the school board break this union, then I'm the leader of the conspiracy," said Lockridge, a black who is one of the board's key strategists in its dispute with the union.
As the strike ends its third week, the conspiracy theory and growing anger toward the school board and school superintendent Vincent E. Reed are the fiery emotions that are fueling Hazel Brown and other teachers as they walk the picket lines.
Brown is one of a majority of teachers -- about 50 percent according to the school board and about 80 percent according to the union -- who are continuing to strike.
"We've lost some teachers," said Brown, a small woman who could have been anybody's third-grade teacher. "We knew some were going to go back. They said they were going to give us a few days. One lady, a very negative person, went back because she said it wasn't going to do any good anyway. Other people say they need the money.
"I'm losing money too," she said, her eyes suddenly wide. "But it's the principle of the thing. The union is the bargaining agent representing the teachers. We should stand up for our rights. We need a contract. We need the protection and the job security a contract gives us."
Brown said teachers need protection in contract form because principals can be "arrogant." A teacher may disagree with a principal, she said, on a teacher's performance rating for in class. Or the teacher may tell the principal that the class is too large to teach. Without a contract, a principal does not have to listen, Brown said.
Brown, a teacher for 17 years, was at Lewis before 1967, when collective bargaining, William Simons and the Washington Teachers' Union came to the D.C. public schools.
"We had roll books, no planning periods and weekly Wednesday afternoon meetings," she said of those days. "If the principal wanted you there, you had to go."
The union changed all that. The roll books, frequently referred to at union rallies as a symbol of the onerous clerical work that teachers once had to do, have been replaced by attendance cards. Teachers, who once could not get their paychecks until principals decided to pass them out, now have a contractual right to receive paychecks once they enter the school building.
Union officials tell teachers that, without a contract, principals could have them cleaning up after elementary school students in school bathrooms or principals could "spy" on teachers by turning on their intercom and listening in on their classrooms.
Brown doesn't agree always with all union positions. If there were more school aides, for example, teachers could concentrate on teaching. But, she said, "I feel I should supervise my kids in the lavatory. I don't want my little people getting in trouble."
Brown also found herself in disagreement with union leader Simons when he changed his demands at the bargaining table recently and asked the school board for pay raises.
"I did wonder what was going on," she said. "I figured he had to have something in mind, maybe something he could go back to and give up. I didn't lose faith but I did wonder."
Brown thinks teachers have a decent salary.
"I don't think I'm being cheated," she said. "It's a fairly good salary. There again... I've heard other people say other professionals get more. We go to school and work a job that's never done. I'd say our pay is fair plus, but not good."
Brown is concerned about school board proposals to remove student discipline and grading procedures from the teachers' contract. The board has said it wants principals to have the final word in matters of grading and discipline with committees of parents, students, teachers a administrators helping to set a school system policy. The board would have final approval austerity.
"I'm a parent, too," said Brown, whe has a son at Taft Junior High and two sons at McKinley High School. "And sometimes you think your kid is doing better than he really is until you see his day-to-day grades, his test scores, his essays. You don't see if he is being disrespectful, talking out of turn. The teacher is the only person who sees all of that. The principal isn't in the classroom with the student."
None of Brown's children -- unlike the children of union leader Simons -- are going to school during the strike. She is angry at Superintendent Reed for keeping the schools open.
"The reason he is not closing the schools," said Brown's husband, William Brown, a vice president of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, "is to break the strike. It didn't matter a tinker's damn to him that the kids are not getting an education.... Once the strike is over, Reed is going to have to work with the same people he is talking about now. He is going to have bad relations with people and their degree of confidence in him is going to drop."
"I have been disappointed with the way the superintendent has talked," Hazel Brown said. "He said he is considering firing teachers. If he does that, he'll get more [teachers] to come out again. And he just got around to saying that the strike was devastating the schools. He should have known that and closed the schools.
"What's going on in them?"
Brown is also angry at board President Minnie S. Woodson: "I think she has been told that, without this union, teachers will have to work harder and test scores will go up," she said. "The board pushed the union to strike. They wanted the union to strike. They thought they could get rid of it."
Brown said she is ready to stay out "for as long as it takes," as the union slogan goes.