The Washington Teachers Union and the D.C. School Board held stubbornly to their opposing positions on contract negotiating practices yesterday, and school board president Conrad P. Smith said that despite a union call for a strike today, parents should send their children to school this morning.
Vincent Reed, superintendent of schools, yesterday sent notices to the 4,700 teachers who are members of the union warning them that if they fail to report to work today, they will be "subject to disciplinary action including termination of services."
Smith, the board president, said he expects most teachers to report to work today, but explained that school administrators and substitute teachers will teach classes if union teachers heed the strike call.
Union president William H. Simons said that "we are in good shape for the strike. We've had union representatives going around town talking to teachers about the issue, and I think they understand what is at stake. The schools will be closed; the teachers are going out."
In interviews around the city, some teachers said they were undecided about the strike and cited the lack of a union strike fund. A strike fund is used to pay union members while they are on strike.
The dispute that prompted the union's strike call centers on two issues. The first issue is the number of hours eight teachers who are on the union's contract bargaining team can be absent from their classes for negotiations. The second issue is reinstatement of the union's expired contract for the duration of negotiations on a new contract. The old contract expired last July and negotiations on a new contract have not yet begun.
"It's amazing to me that the teachers would strike over such a silly, frivolous issue," Smith said in his 12th floor office at school board headquarters yesterday. "It is a bad precedent for the union to call a strike over an issue that affects so few teachers. The issues don't affect teachers generally."
Union president William Simons said the school board is guilty of "union busting" and is attempting to set contract policy without bringing the issues to the negotiating table.
"Call it what you will, the school board is trying to break this union," Simons said. "They are trying to set policy before negotiations begin. That's not bargaining. They're not bringing the issue to the contract table. They're telling us to take it or leave it. They're trying to bully us."
Yesterday, Simons formally rejected two offers made Monday by the school board. He personally took his response to the board's proposals to the school board building and met with the board's chief negotiator, Kenneth Nickolas.
By late yesterday afternoon, Superintendent Reed reported that Simons and Nickolas had made no progress toward an agreement.
In a press conference yesterday afternoon Reed said schools will be open and functioning today despite the strike. He said schools will be staffed by more than 700 substitute teachers and an estimated 300 administrators. There are about 200 schools in the system and 120,000 students.
"Individual principals will do what they have to do to keep the schools going," Reed said after the press briefing. "We're giving priority to elementary schools and special education schools."
Reed also appealed to teachers not to abide by the union's call to strike.
"Based on your professional commitment to the students under your charge," Reed said, "you should question this whole business of engaging yourself in a strike or a work stoppage.
"We do have a mechanism for dealing with our differences and that mechanism is to come to the (bargaining) table. It's no need to make youngsters suffer for adult's problems when adults need to sit down and talk," he said.
Around the city yesterday several teachers expressed doubts about walking a picket line this morning. The primary concern voiced by them was the absence of a union strike fund to pay them during the strike.
"I think the people downtown (the school board) and at the union are fools," said Everett Raney, a business and typing teacher at Douglass Junior High School as he washed his hands in the teachers' lounge. "They should have settled this thing through negotiations. I won't be here tomorrow, anyway, because I have a doctor's appointment but I don't know for sure what I'd do."
"I'm going to come in myself," said Earl Johnson, a woodshop instructor at Douglass, as he used a power-saw to cut out a skateboard for a student. "I need the money to pay my bills. The hell with what the rest of them think . . . I just bought a house and if I'm on strike the payments aren't going to get paid.
Outside McKinley High School a group of teachers who asked to remain anonymous said they would be striking today but they doubted if they could continue to strike beyond the end of the week.
"Money," said a tall teacher who was standing against the green railing outside the school in the northeast section of the city. "It's as simple as that. Money. You got to have it and the union sure can't give it to us. But I'm going to go with the union because I believe in it."
I'm 100 percent union," said another man. "If the union goes out I go out."
"We're not a big union," union president Simons said in explaining why the union does not have a strike fund. "We're a little union and we're going to have to go it without a strike fund."
The union, which scheduled a meeting last night to organize strike effort, has distributed more than 40,000 [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to students and parents to explain why they will be striking.
Both union leaders and school board members are counting on public sentiment to force the other side to make a quick settlement.
"I think most people understand that the school board is stalling the negotiations," Simons said. "And I don't think the community will be pleased to see their children out of school.All we are asking is that the board bring all the issues to the table and negotiate. That's not all except one (issue), but all (issues) every issue."
But school board member Alaire Reiffel said she has been contacted by several parents who have offered the board their full support.
"I've heard from a number of parents," Reiffel said. "One mother said to me 'let's see about those teachers raising test scores, then we'll see about negotiations.' The only calls I've had in support of the teachers have been from teachers."
Both union leaders and school board members privately acknowledge that the current dispute over ground rules for negotiating a new contract is only a preliminary skirmish before the board and the union begin battle over several major issues at the contract talks.
Those major issues include lengthening the school day and the school year; reinstituting testing teachers before they are hired and regularly after they are hired; changing the grievance procedure for teachers to make it easier for school administrators to get rid of bad teachers; and changing the terms of leave plans during the school year.
Negotiations between the union and the board are complicated because the board does not control teachers' salaries. The City Council and Congress usually set the pay scale for teachers in Washington. The board can negotiate only working conditions and educational policy with the union. The school board is known to be unhappy over concessions made to the union in the previous contract.
"They're not offering us anything and they want us to give up something," said union president Simons. "Now why would anyone give you something for nothing? We're not going to give them anything until we sit, talk and bargain, give and take."