A sharply divided D.C. Board of Education refused to hold an emergency meeting yesterday to consider Mayor Marion Barry's school strike compromise plan, thereby dashing the mayor's hopes of ending Washington's week-old school crisis by this morning.
Barry met separately with leaders from both sides at the District Building yesterday in an unsuccessful effort to fashion a limited agreement between the feuding school board and members of the striking Washington Teachers Union that would end the strike and accelerate long-stalled negotiations.
While failing to concede defeat, Barry said after the meeting, "The strike is on" for this morning. School officials said the District's 200 public schools would open, as they had last week, with a staff of regular teachers, substitutes, administrators and voluteers.
It was during a 45-minute session with most of the board's 10 members yesterday that Barry's personal diplomacy faltered. Barry told reporters after the meeting that he told the board the union would agree to accept the compromise plan if the board accepted it as well. He asked the board to meet last night, he said.
"If the board voted to accept, the union would [accept] and the strike could end," Barry recalled telling the board members.
But the eight board members still present -- one had left -- split on a 4-4 straw vote. Six votes were needed to call the emergency session. As a result, the board will not consider the Barry plan until an already scheduled 10 o'clock closed-door session this morning.
That will be the first board meeting since teachers struck the schools at midnight one week ago.
Under Barry's plan, the union would call off the strike in return for assurances from the board that there would be no reprisals against teachers.The board would also continue to recognize the union as the sole bargaining agent for the city's 6,000 public school teachers, and it would ask the D.C. Superior Court to postpone further proceedings on a board request to hold the union in contempt of court for launching an illegal strike.
In return, the board would not have to reinstate -- as the union has demanded -- a provision in the expired contract that allows the union to collect about $59,000 a month through automatic payroll deductions from city teachers. The dues checkoff provision is the financial lifeline of the union.
The board has maintained that having the power to open or close that lifeline is one of the few levers it has to prod the union into swift negotiations on a new contract.
Board members contend that negotiations have proceeded slowly over the past year because the union is satisfied with the old contract and would rather see it extended than negotiate a new one in which the union might have less control over school operations and teachers' activities.
Because Barry has no clearly defined role in the labor dispute, his plan proposed no solutions to substantive issues outstanding in the dispute. These include sections of the contract governing the school day and school year [the board would like to lengthen them] and governing the evaluation of teacher performance [the board would like increased powers in this area].
Instead, the mayor proposed setting up a three-member fact-finding panel to include a representative from each party and one neutral member that would make recommendations no later then April 16 on the unresolved issues.
The board, guarding its political autonomy, has opposed Barry's intervention, with some members contending that in past disagreements, mayoral intervention has benefited the teachers' union. The union endorsed Barry last year during his campaign for mayor.
At yesterday's meeting with the mayor, school board members Barbara Lett Simmons, Frank Shaffer-Corona, Bettie Benjamin and Victoria T. Street were in favor of an emergency meeting. Carol L. Schwartz, R. Calving Lockridge, Alaire B. Rieffel and Conrad P. Smith were against it.
Board President Minnie S. Woodson had left the meeting with Barry early, she said, because of "dire" personal reasons. But Woodson said later she would have voted against an emergency session. John E. Warren has been in favor of the board meeting as soon as possible, but he said he did not attend the meeting with the mayor because he thought the board should be holding its own meeting instead.
After the meeting, board members made a wide variety of comments.
Simmons said she was "distressed and appalled" that the board could meet with the mayor and not by itself. Board Vice President Schwartz said the meeting with Barry had accomplished "nothing, other than to let the mayor report his proposal in the presence of the board."
School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed left the meeting without saying anything to reporters. Rieffel said she was "optimistic" that the strike could be resolved in negotiations.
Those negotiations resumed yesterday for the first time since Thursday, but broke off inconclusively after five hours. No future bargaining session was immediately scheduled.
At Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church downtown, where 900 persons had gathered at a teachers' union rally, Union President William H. Simons used reports of the board's decision to blame it for the continuing school crisis.
"The onus is now on the board of education," Simons said. "We've walked that last mile. This is the crucial moment in the struggle. I think the end is in sight. We can come out of this unscathed."
In a letter delivered to individual school board members early yesterday morning by city policemen, Barry claimed that the union had accepted the compromise. "The union, recognizing its position in the litigation [in D. C. Superior Court]... agreed to accept the proposal as a means to purge itself of contempt," Barry wrote.
But at yesterday's church rally, Simons told the often somber crowed, "The mayor's proposal is deficient. That is why we have not accepted it. But we are receptive because it offers a framework to open the schools."
Sources said that union representatives had hoped the compromise would include provisions that would, in effect, prevent the board from changing the length of the school day, the length of the school year or current teacher evaluation procedures. At one point, the sources also said, the union tried unsuccessfully to have Barry include retention of the dues checkoff system in his plan.
The 19-member executive committee of the union met with the mayor for about 90 minutes at the District Building yesterday but did not formally vote to accept the mayor's proposal, Simons said.
Before the union could call off the strike, the plan would have to be approved by a vote of the union membership, Simons said. "The earliest I could have that [vote] would be Monday. That if approved, would ensure opening of the schools [under normal conditions] on Tuesday," he said.
Since the teachers went on strike last Tuesday, operations in city schools have lumbered along in makeshift and crowded classes, with television viewing and physical education substituting for reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic.
The union has claimed 90 percent effectiveness in its call for teachers to stay away from work, but the school system contends that an increasing number of teachers have come back to work, reaching the 45 percent level by the end of last week.
In the meantime, only about half the city's 113,000 students were attending school by last Friday. As many parents chose to keep their children at home rather than send them to overcrowded and understaffed schoolrooms.
The continuing crisis has provoked some criticism from community and religious organizations, who fear that a continuing stalemate may further hinder the educational progress of students in a public school system already heavily criticized for low student achievement.
Last night, about 135 persons met at a 6th District Police Station on Benning Road in far Northeast Washington and passed resolutions urging both sides to move more quickly in resolving the crisis.
Aides to the mayor were optimistic yesterday, despite the board's rebuff of the mayor's call for an emergency session. As a result of the mayor's prodding, the aides said privately, the board had at least agreed to meet -- something it has not formally done since the strike began last Tuesday.
Much of the attention today is expected to be focused on D.C. Superior Court, where Judge Glady's Kessler is scheduled to resume proceedings on the board's request that the union be held in contempt of court because it defied a court order issued last Monday forbidding the strike.
Whether to delay or continue those proceedings has been a major point of contention between the two sides.
Knowledgable observers believe that the union is almost certain to be held in cintempt of court once Kessler completes the almost-finished proceedings.
That could result in heavy fines or even Simons' imprisonment, since he is one of 17 union members named as defendants in the case.
Part of the school board's strategy has been to get back to the bargaining table -- possibly with the court forcing the union back to the talks under threat of penalties -- and negotiate until fact-finding begins. Current board rules would require such fact-finding after only three more bargaining sessions are held.
Thus, according to school board President Woodson, the board has seen only a limited need to go along with Barry's proposal for immediate fact-finding.
The union views the board's refusal to delay action on the court suit and simultaneous assistance on negotiations as a means of intimidation and, in the view of some observers, an effort to severely damage -- if not destory -- the union.
"They want to litigate by day and negotiate by night," union lawyer William B. p/eer said of the board's stance. "If they're interested in extracting a pound of flesh out of the union as punishment, they're going to have to pay the price. And the price is that the schools won't be open."
Before yesterday's church rally, union members picketed the homes of School Superintendent Reed and six members of the board.