Mayor discusses plans to address education disputes

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(Susann Shin/The Current/April 2017)

Mayor Muriel Bowser is likely to spend much of the next two months wrangling with the D.C. Council over her proposed fiscal year 2018 budget. But other pursuits will occupy her time as well — including a long-sought agreement between her office and the Washington Teachers’ Union.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Current on Monday, the mayor discussed various education issues that included funding levels, the future of the old Hardy School site in Foxhall, and the lack of a contract with the teachers union.

The union has been without a contract since September 2012, and members contend that teacher salaries have stagnated and that tiered increases associated with promotions have lagged behind current standards. In her State of the District address, Bowser vowed to finalize a deal. She expanded on that commitment in Monday’s interview, praising the city’s teachers and arguing that a new contract is overdue.

“The time has come. The teachers need a predictable rate in place, and we want to get that done,” said Bowser. “We do want to have fair negotiations. I’ve been at it two years, and I want to make sure we do it.”

Though she said she can’t comment on specifics of the negotiations, she said that options like the union’s well-publicized request for a retroactive salary increase remain on the table. “I don’t know that we rule anything out,” Bowser said.

She also framed the issue as an implicit criticism of Vincent Gray, who lost his mayoral re-election bid to Bowser in 2014 and now serves as the Ward 7 D.C. Council member. Gray’s administration was unable to secure a deal with the union despite negotiating for most of his tenure — “I don’t really know why they didn’t reach an agreement for that entire time,” Bowser said.

The union has ramped up public pressure in recent months. Union protesters surrounded a “Standing Ovation for Teachers” event at the Kennedy Center on March 13. Later that month, two Lafayette Elementary teachers held signs and talked with visitors outside Bowser’s State of the District address at the University of the District of Columbia. “Teachers want closure on their contract and a fair pay raise, not bonuses that promote favoritism and have no documented connection to student improvement,” read a news release for the Kennedy Center protest.

Bowser said she had hoped for an agreement before Chancellor Antwan Wilson took over on Feb. 1. But despite 12 consecutive days of negotiating in December, her administration didn’t reach that goal. But she plans to continue a vigorous approach.

“We’re very proud of our teachers,” Bowser said. “We’re proud that we have the highest-paid teaching force in the region. We’re proud that a good number of teachers over the last six years have benefited from bonuses because of the level of work that they have done. We also want all of the teachers to get a regular cost-of-living [adjustment] in addition to their bonuses, and in addition to the very good pay that we’ve negotiated.”

The characterization by some of D.C.’s teaching force as the highest-paid in the nation rankles many union members, who cite studies that show the city ranks well below other urban areas after adjusting for cost-of-living. The union has also pointed to rising salaries for senior-level D.C. Public Schools officials like former Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whose annual pay increased from $275,000 to $292,520 between 2012 and 2016.

A more public fight over schools will come during budget talks. Bowser remains steadfast about her decision to increase the per-pupil funds for D.C. Public Schools and charter school students by 1.5 percent, and she has support from Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans. But advocacy groups including Friends of Choice in Urban Schools and Democrats for Education Reform have argued that an increase of at least 2 percent is necessary to avoid falling behind inflation.

Ward 3 State Board of Education member Ruth Wattenberg projected in her April newsletter that the 1.5 percent rise will hit larger high schools like Wilson particularly hard, potentially forcing cuts of as many as nine staff positions. And Gray, who appears primed to challenge Bowser’s re-election, is calling for a 4 percent increase.

“I don’t want you to characterize it like the schools are being starved,” Bowser told The Current in response to criticism. “They get a 1.5 percent increase. On top of that, the public charter schools got a 2.2 percent increase in their facilities allotment, a commitment that we’ve made for the succeeding three years in addition to that. This represents a huge increase in the amount of money that is going into schools.”

But other opinions linger. Bowser said she’s not surprised some think her allocation is insufficient. “People say that in just about every cluster of the government,” she said. “I get it — these are all worthy programs. But the total amount of increase is $100 million.”

The Lab School of Washington leases the former Hardy School in Foxhall. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2017)

While budget talks continue, another contentious schools issue in Ward 3 remains in limbo. Bowser sent a bill to the D.C. Council last month for a long-term lease extension of the old Hardy School building at 1550 Foxhall Road NW to the Lab School of Washington, a special-needs education program that occupies the former public elementary school.

Critics in the neighborhood want to see the building considered as a possible public school space to relieve overcrowding elsewhere in Ward 3’s public schools. Ward 5 D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie, chair of the Committee on Business and Economic Development, hasn’t yet decided what to do with the bill or whether to hold a public hearing, his spokesperson Nolan Treadway told The Current.

The council voted to request disposition to the Lab School from Bowser in December, but she rejected the advance, arguing that only the mayor has the power to decide the recipient of a disposition. The same argument regarding council overreach also came up recently during debate over the fate of several derelict homes in Ward 8’s Anacostia — council members supported a renovation effort by the nonprofit L’Enfant Trust, but Bowser secured a private developer instead.

“I think the rule of law is important,” Bowser said. “That’s not to say that I don’t agree with the council’s intent in either case. I do think that [with] the old Hardy School, we should extend the lease with Lab. But I also know that there’s a whole process that we have to go through that we should not just discard. There’s a slippery slope when you do that. While … I may agree with the intent of this, if we just skip over the process, sometime in the future we may get a decision that we don’t like.”

Bowser’s office hopes to reach the agreement before the council’s summer recess, spokesperson Kevin Harris told The Current.

Though Bowser has said that she hopes for a public hearing on the bill, her feelings as to the ultimate outcome are clear.

“I advanced the bill, and I want them to approve it,” Bowser said.