EARLY LAST YEAR, following months of arduous bargaining, representatives of the Washington Teachers' Union and D.C. public school officials shook hands over a new contract and agreed to put their agreement in writing for subsequent signing. The Post's Justin Blum reports, however, that after all the smiles and handshakes the mayor's deputy chief of staff, Gregory McCarthy, and chief of staff, Kelvin J. Robinson, separately intervened with school officials to urge the inclusion of a legal benefit in the contract that school system negotiators firmly believe had been taken off the bargaining table months earlier. Steven G. Seleznow, the superintendent's chief of staff, told the mayor's agents that a deal already had been struck and that the benefit sought -- free or reduced-cost legal services to teachers for non-school-related problems -- would cost $1.1 million that the schools didn't have. But Mayor Anthony A. Williams's office wouldn't take no for an answer. As a result, there are now more questions than ever.
Mayor Williams apparently wanted union members to have the benefit so badly that his office promised to find extra funds to pay for it if the school system couldn't afford it. That, in fact, is what happened: The benefit was included after negotiations were concluded, but not before school officials insisted on a letter guaranteeing that the $1.1 million would come from elsewhere in the city's budget. After rejecting the mayor's first letter of guarantee on grounds of vagueness, the school system relented and added the benefit to the final contract.
But why would the mayor intervene in a negotiation that had already given union members handsome pay increases totaling 19 percent over three years? To fund the pay raises, the school system had to sacrifice about $15 million in the capital budget, thus putting off badly needed rebuilding of dilapidated school buildings. Why, with negotiated salary hikes already taking a bite out of school construction, would a mayor who claims that "children come first" want to add even more expensive teacher benefits?
Yesterday's Post offers a possible answer. Reportedly Barbara Bullock, then president of the Washington Teachers' Union, successfully lobbied the Williams administration in 2001 to award a $296,500 contract to the law firm of Curtis Lewis & Associates. Curtis Lewis is the brother of former teachers' union treasurer James O. Baxter II, who is under investigation for alleged misuse of union funds. Mr. Lewis's law firm also was representing the union at the time. It may be asked, which law firm would have represented union members if the union had $1.1 million on hand to pay for legal services? School system officials who read the story advised yesterday that funds for legal services had not been and were not likely to be released to the teachers' union until the various investigations of its finances are satisfactorily resolved. That is a wise stance to take, even if the mayor's agents come calling again.