Several District officials and school activists say they fear the D.C. school system is about to embark on another chaotic budget season by putting together a spending plan without having reached contract agreements with its employee unions.
Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, who will submit a budget for fiscal year 2006 to the school board next month, is still negotiating three-year labor agreements with the unions representing teachers, principals, bus drivers and teacher's aides. The unions' last contracts with the school system expired in September 2004.
School officials last week declined to say whether any money for employee pay raises would be included in Janey's budget proposal, explaining that they could not comment on any matters related to ongoing collective bargaining. But in the past, they have avoided budgeting for raises during contract talks, saying that doing so would reduce their leverage in the negotiations.
Education advocates say they are worried that the scenario of the last two budget cycles is about to be repeated. In each of those instances, the superintendent and school board did not budget the full cost of employee raises and the mayor and D.C. Council -- to prevent the withholding of the raises or other drastic cuts -- agreed to a last-minute bailout of the school system.
"You can't just sit on the whole thing and hope in the end that the unions will cave or the mayor will come up with more money," said Mary Levy, who is director of the Public Education Reform Project for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and has studied the school system's financial structure.
Levy said school leaders should either complete labor negotiations before the start of the budget process, so they would know exactly how much money to budget for raises, or factor collective bargaining agreements into the school funding formula.
"This is a fixable problem," she said.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the council's education committee, said there would be "strong resistance" among her colleagues to provide emergency funding again. "The school system should negotiate a contract it can afford, not go out of its budget," she added.
Patterson and others also said the school system is violating a law passed by the council in 2002 that requires agencies to complete collective bargaining with public employee unions before submitting a budget.
She said many city government agencies are in compliance with the law, reaching agreements with unions before the budget season and, in some cases, even before the old labor pact has expired. But she said the school system has regularly broken the law, which is not enforced.
"The school system never got itself into the same cycle" as city government, Patterson said. "They didn't have strong people in labor relations."
Rudolph F. Pierce, a lawyer who is acting as the school system's chief negotiator, declined comment on Patterson's allegation that the law is being violated. Pierce did say that tight resources are a factor in the slow pace of negotiations with the various employee unions.
Janey "wants to have good relations with the members of the bargaining units," Pierce said. "The difficulty is in giving employees what they want and doing it within the constraints of the budget."
School board member Tommy Wells (District 3) said he thinks Janey is committed to ensuring that employees are paid fairly, adding that the superintendent spent months working to fix payroll problems that were preventing hundreds of teachers from receiving back pay.
Still, he said, "this is very serious and we've got to have negotiated contracts for our employees." Teachers and other workers, he said, need to be "energized" to support the changes in curriculum, textbooks and academic standards that Janey is implementing. "Dr. Janey has to identify where the funding is coming from or whether something is going to be cut."
In 2004, before Janey took office, the school board said it could not afford a 9 percent raise in the last year of the teachers' union's three-year contract. Some teachers threatened to walk off their jobs, and the council eventually approved $14 million to fund the raise.
In the spring, Janey said the system would be forced to lay off hundreds of teachers if it added money to the budget to pay for the step increases for teachers called for in the previous agreement. In May, the council allocated an extra $19.8 million.
This year's contract talks have dragged on for several months, and representatives from the two largest employee groups, the teachers and bus drivers, said they are disappointed by the lack of progress.
On Nov. 16, the school board rejected a new contract from the union representing 1,400 bus drivers and attendants for special education students. Board members said the contract was improper because it was not negotiated by Janey, as their policy requires, but by David Gilmore, who was authorized by a federal judge to run the special education transportation program as part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed by parents.
Gilmore said he took control of the negotiations because school officials were "offering a zero-based salary and no performance raise." He said he will ask the judge to force the school board to approve the contract.
George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, which represents about 4,500 teachers, said contract talks with the school system, which began in February, have been stalled since June.
"We presented a compensation package in June and we're still waiting for a response to that or a counteroffer," Parker said.
"I don't think teachers are in the mood to hear that money is not available," Parker added. "The city has a surplus, and teachers are working very hard."