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D.C. schools and teachers struggle to reach contract after 3 years

The chancellor says the sticking point is compensation. The union says it’s working conditions.

Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, speaks during a mayoral news conference on June 6. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

The District’s public school system and the Washington Teachers’ Union appear to be at an impasse, failing to reach an agreement on a labor contract that is already three years expired. Both sides said they had wanted to approve a new contract before the end of the last academic year and are now hoping they can break the stalemate and reach an agreement over the summer.

The two parties have had standing meetings every week for the past three years to negotiate the contract, according to the school system and union.

The labor contract deliberations overlapped with months of publicly contentious negotiations in 2020 and 2021 over how to safely reopen school buildings during the pandemic, which the two groups ultimately reached agreements on.

Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said the sticking point in the labor contract is compensation, though he would not elaborate on what each side wants and what they have already agreed on, citing sensitivity of the negotiation process.

“I don’t think we are that far apart, and I am still hopeful that we get there,” Ferebee said. “The ball is in their court.”

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Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, however, said the remaining disagreements are not about money but rather how much time teachers are guaranteed to have to plan lessons and grade assignments each week.

The current contract gives 225 minutes each week outside of their teaching time for planning. Lyons would not say what the teachers are seeking, but she said the union’s demands would not cut into student instruction time. The union has said that staffing shortages during the pandemic have required teachers to cover classes for absent colleagues, cutting into planning time.

“We were very disappointed. We wanted to walk out of school this year with a contract,” Lyons said. “We thought it was important that teachers have more time to plan thoughtful and engaging lessons to make up for what was lost during the pandemic.”

The Washington Teachers’ Union, which represents the city’s 4,000 traditional public school teachers, has collective bargaining rights that allow the union to negotiate a contract with the city that covers compensation and workers’ conditions. The current 120-page contract includes provisions about teacher development trainings, base compensation, overtime pay and class-size limits for each grade.

The city’s public charter school teachers are not part of this union or covered by the contract.

The current contract went into effect October 2016 and expired in October 2019. Since then, the union and school system have operated under the agreements set forth in that contract, but teachers have not received an increase in their base pay. Teachers are, in part, paid based on how many years they have worked in classrooms. They have continued to receive these raises while the contract is lapsed.

Ferebee, who started leading the school system in 2019, has not yet negotiated a teacher labor contract during his tenure. He changed the principals’ contracts from one to two years — a change that principals had long sought. The school system is currently negotiating contracts with three different labor groups, with all the raises and pay changes coming from the same pool of money.

The Washington Teachers’ Union’s previous contract had been lapsed for five years before the groups reached their last agreement in 2017. Teachers received some retroactive pay as part of that deal.

Lyons started leading these negotiations after her predecessor and longtime labor leader in the city, Elizabeth Davis, died in a car crash in April 2021. Lyons was elected to serve a full term as president last month.

In June, Washington Teachers’ Union members rallied in the Wilson Building — the District’s city hall — for a fair contract. They called for smaller class sizes, pay to keep up with inflation, protected planning time and due process for teachers if they appeal their evaluation scores or go through the grievance process.

Standard classes for grades three through 12 are limited to 25 students. Lyons said that while she would want smaller class sizes in certain instances, the union is no longer arguing for that.

“We would love that,” she said. “But we took that off the table a long time ago.”

During negotiations, if representatives on either side feel they can no longer budge on their positions, they put down their best and final offers. If they still do not agree once both sides lay out their final offers, they can take it to the arbitrator, with a mediator ultimately deciding the terms of the contract.

“What we offered is generous, fair and responsive to the needs that have been expressed,” Ferebee said. “I think an arbitrator would find that what we presented is very reasonable.”