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Pre-emptive strike?

The District of Columbia is broke. The National Education Association is under political fire. And last week, union and city officials announced what seems like a mutually beneficial deal.

Keith B. Geiger, the president of the 2.2 million-member union, gave the capital city's government a check for $100,000 and a pledge to pay more if other institutions chip in too.

The local City Council, faced with devastating budget cuts, hopes the Washington-based NEA's move will be the first step in establishing a "payment in lieu of taxes program" for tax-exempt institutions that wish to help the city.

Since 1906, the NEA has enjoyed tax-exempt status under a congressional charter--along with about 40 other local property owners. But the special status has become a sore point in Congress.

Last fall, by only three votes, the House defeated an amendment to a District of Columbia budget bill that would have ended the union's tax exemption. Proponents argued that the organization is no longer a professional association, as it was characterized in the charter, but a labor union that engages in extensive fund-raising activities.

NEA officials insist that their motives are charitable, not defensive.

"If there ever was a time for us to be a good neighbor, now is that time," Mr. Geiger said in presenting a check to City Council Chairman David Clarke.

The NEA has agreed to be taxed as a "nonprofit educational institution" and pay $680,000 per year. Its upscale headquarters at 1201 16th St. N.W., just up the street from the White House, is assessed at $82 million, which normally would generate $1.7 million in annual taxes.

Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the NEA, said the union has tried for 20 years to make payments to the city. The current deal is the fruit of talks that began last spring, she said.

The amendment sponsored last fall by Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, made it "awkward" for the NEA to continue the negotiations, Ms. Lyons said.

"We did not want to be seen as opportunists," she said. "It certainly did not accelerate our moving."

Mr. Bonilla vowed last week to continue his fight to repeal the NEA's tax-exempt status.

--Ann Bradley

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