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D.C. teachers protest
School board seeks funds to meet Oct. 1union contract deadline for 9% pay raises
(Published September 22, 2003)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER
Staff Writer

A budget standoff that pits Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. City Council against the Board of Education, including three of the mayorís own appointees, has left D.C. Public Schools teachers threatening to strike Oct. 2 if they do not receive a pay raise that city officials previously agreed to give them.

The 9 percent pay raises, which teachers are expecting to receive at the beginning of the cityís new fiscal year Oct. 1, are included in a contract with the Washington Teachers Union. The contract was negotiated by the mayorís office and approved by both the school board and the city council.

But problems arose this summer when the school board voted to cancel the planned pay raises, citing a lack of funds to pay them. The school board contends that it approved the teachers unionís contract only after being promised by the mayor and council that they would budget sufficient funds to cover the negotiated raises.

The mayor and the council contend that they provided the needed funds for the approximately $40 million in pay raises, although last week they offered to provide an additional $21 million to help fund the pay raises -- but only if the school board agrees to certain conditions, which include asking Congress to take away the school boardís line-item budget authority that is granted in the Districtís home rule charter.

Seven members of the nine-member school board rejected the conditions Sept. 22 in a letter to the mayor, council Chairman Linda Cropp and council education committee chairman Kevin Chavous.

"Enlisting Congress to amend the [home rule] Charter sets a dangerous precedent," the board members wrote. "We believe the Charter belongs to the citizens of the District and should be amended only by the voters. The Districtís Home Rule is limited in self-government as it is; it will become even more fragile -- if not meaningless -- if you ask Congress to amend it to resolve a local dispute."

The letter was signed by school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and members Mirian Saez, Julie Mikuta, Robin Martin, Carrie Thornhill, William Lockridge and Tommy Wells. Saez, Martin and Thornhill are mayoral appointees to the board, while the other signatories are elected officials.

Russell Smith, the school boardís executive director, said the board was attempting through meetings with the mayor and the council, as well as through further review of the schools budget, to find the necessary money for the raises. Smith said the board also planned to appeal to the teachersí union for "understanding" to head off a strike if the budget dispute does not get settled in time.

The school board has repeatedly said that any further reductions in the schools budget would require them to make cuts that will have a direct impact on the quality of student instruction.

While the budgeting process for the schools begins with the superintendent and the school board, the mayor and the council have the final word -- among local elected officials -- on how much money is eventually included in the Districtís annual budget to fund the public schools. The Districtís entire budget must then be approved by Congress.

This year, as in many years past, approval of the Districtís annual budget is being held up on Capitol Hill by political wrangling over attaching congressional mandates to the local budget. The big fight this year involves proposed vouchers to allow up to 2,000 D.C. children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.

Congress approved a $770 million local budget for the public schools in fiscal 2003, which ends Sept. 30. The school board was then required by city officials to cut $30 million from that amount to help address an expected citywide budget shortfall. The fiscal 2004 budget that was sent to Capitol Hill includes $738 million in local funding for D.C. Public Schools.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator