Teachers in the D.C. school system are facing a winter of discontent, with scores of them threatened with layoffs and those who stay likely to lose long-awaited pay raises.
"If the city says it doesn't have any money, what can we do?" Juanita Warren, a teacher at the School Without Walls in Northwest, asked with resignation.
"I don't believe it's going to be devastating to morale, because most teachers aren't in this career for money. But education seems forever to stay at the bottom of priorities, even though it's supposed to be so important."
Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon has ordered a $10 million reduction in the education budget and has proposed deferring $40 million in planned raises for teachers as part of a plan to erase a projected $300 million deficit this year.
While Dixon says she hopes to avoid layoffs of front-line city workers, school board President R. David Hall (Ward 2) said he has no choice but to begin examining ways to abolish teaching and administrative jobs later this spring.
However, Hall said that for now he is resisting the prospect of telling the Washington Teachers Union, whose contract with the school system has expired, that negotiations cannot include more money.
"At this point I don't think we can avoid making serious personnel cuts," Hall said. "But we cannot retreat from the pay raise. Without it, the school system is inevitably headed for a long, slow decline."
The school system's shrinking enrollment, which is most evident in junior and senior high schools, has made it easier for some to consider layoffs.
Hall and William Simons, the teachers union president, agree that the system has at least 100 more teachers than it apparently needs in secondary schools.
It is the prospect of scrapping the pay raise that seems to stir the most anxiety in the ranks of the city's 6,700 teachers, who, with a starting salary of $23,305, are paid less than their counterparts in all of Washington's suburbs.
"Money just ought to be found for that," said Aaron Penn, a counselor and teacher at Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center, one of the largest schools in Southeast. "I know we have economic problems, but we have to set priorities for education. If we don't pay more, how do we attract new teachers here?"
City officials say that shelving the raises this year is unavoidable, unless the school system chooses to take money from elsewhere in its half-billion-dollar budget to provide raises.
The school system may be rescued by the D.C. Council, which last year promised to fund a pay increase even if it required raising taxes.
The council has discussed levying a new tax on utility companies so teachers can be paid more.
"I think the council has made a commitment on that, and I don't see evidence of it preparing to renege on it," said council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large).
But school officials first may have to demonstrate a willingness to reduce the size of their bureaucracy.
Two separate civic groups that have studied the city's schools have said the system should eliminate several hundred administrative jobs. Until now, there have been few layoffs, nor have many bureaucrats been enticed to retire early.
"Very, very little has happened," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United, a local schools advocacy group.
Hall said he intends to trim the $1.8 million the school board spends annually for staff, travel and other expenses -- spending that has been criticized as excessive. The board has nearly three dozen employees; in most cities the school board has fewer than 10.
For the last year, parent and business leaders have pressed the city to raise teacher salaries at least to the level paid by suburban school systems.
That move would enhance the District's image when bidding for a limited pool of prospective teachers.
On average, the District has two or three applicants for every vacant teaching position. In the suburbs, the ratio is about 10 to 1.
That statistic has become more relevant in the last few years, for nearly one-third of the city's teaching force is nearing retirement age. In just the last year, nearly 400 teachers have retired.
Improving the quality of the city's teaching corps is widely seen as a critical step to improving the quality of the city's schools, which are plagued by low student achievement and serious dropout problems.
"To lose this money would be totally disheartening," Simons said.
The union's three-year contract with the school system expired in September.
Negotiations since then have proceeded slowly because both sides have known that there was no money in the system's current budget and were looking ahead to the coming fiscal year.
Dixon's announcement has thrown those talks in jeopardy, but both sides say that a teachers' strike appears improbable.
Hall said he recognizes the severity of the District's budget crisis, but does not believe the school system can absorb more cuts in its programs.
Last summer, when the council demanded that the system slice $12 million from its budget, school officials rejected furloughs and instead scaled back a number of academic programs, including summer school classes.