THE TEACHERS' UNION for the District's public schools and the school board have a chance to forge an important pact. Both sides could shake hands on a contract that raises teacher salaries to the highest levels found in suburban schools in exchange for longer hours for city teachers and students. Instead, we hear that the most likely agreement calls for no extra work and a smaller raise. This is disappointing.

The current starting salary for D.C. teachers is $19,100, the least competitive in the area. And the city's schools need more new teachers than any suburban school district because many D.C. teachers are close to retirement age. The union wants a starting salary of $23,000 -- which would be the highest in the area -- and no extra work for teachers. Currently, D.C. teachers must be in school seven hours a day, 30 minutes less than in every neighboring school district. (The school day for D.C. students also is 30 minutes shorter than in most suburban schools.)

District teachers instruct for 275 minutes per day. That compares with about 330 minutes per day in area suburbs and up to 390 minutes per day in large city school systems. In exchange for no more work, the school board has offered a starting salary of $21,500, which would rate third highest in the area. But the board isn't getting much in return.

Some 40 states, including Maryland and Virginia, require applicants to pass the National Teachers Exam before they can be hired. The D.C. schools have no such minimum competency standard -- and one is badly needed.

The $21,500 might not even be enough anyway. About 84 percent of the out-of-state applicants that the District tries to hire turn down offers. Outgoing D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie says that incentives are needed to attract better applicants: relocation allowances, tuition assistance for further study, direct help in finding housing and a waiver of the city's ill-conceived residency requirement. That's important advice. But the contract talks appear to be heading elsewhere: toward less of everything that is crucial to hiring the best teachers for the city's students.