Youth job training contracts are again on hold

The $1.1 million in grants are meant to get at-risk youths through high school and onto a career path. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

I should have known better.

Last month, I reported that the city had finally resolved a two-year-old dispute over contracts to provide in-school job training to at-risk D.C. youths. The new grants, totaling $1.1 million and awarded to three nonprofit organizations by the D.C. Workforce Investment Council, were supposed to have closed out a saga that involved three rounds of bidding, a contract appeal and lots of lawyers.

Except they didn’t. This week, city officials told the nonprofits that the WIC grants are being canceled and rebid, meaning some groups will now be applying for the same money for a fifth time.

The official story is this: The Workforce Investment Council, a long-existing but newly energized group that’s routinely lauded by Mayor Vincent C. Gray as a key part of the city’s employment efforts, awarded the grants in January. But after the WIC announced the awards — to Sasha Bruce Youthwork, the Multicultural Career Intern Program and the Urban Alliance Foundation — city lawyers discovered that the WIC didn’t actually have authority to issue grants. So, mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said, the awards were withdrawn and the process will be restarted by the Department of Employment Services. (Note that DOES, working with the city procurement department, was the agency that screwed all this stuff up in the first place.)

“It’s better to stop it and do it right rather than let a flawed grant go out there,” Ribeiro said.

However, questions remain, fueling suspicions in the nonprofit community that the withdrawal has more to do with a bureaucratic clash between DOES and the WIC than legal niceties. To begin: The WIC is under the aegis of both DOES and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, both of which have grant-making authority. Why does the WIC need further authorization? Also, the fact that the WIC would be handling the youth job training grants wasn’t a state secret. Why didn’t city lawyers examine this issue before the grants were awarded? Finally, besides the in-school grants, the WIC also last year awarded grants for out-of-school job training programs. Those grants have not been canceled, said Anne Abbott, a policy analyst with the Alliance of Youth Advocates. (“Those grants ran closer to the DOES grant-making process, so the lawyers felt comfortable,” Ribeiro said.)

The upshot is that, unless the city can conduct an evaluation process with alacrity unprecedented in District government history, there will likely be no in-school job training for scores of city youths during the current school year. Perhaps the programs will be in place in time for summer school.

“The contracts are supposed to be serving some of the highest-risk youth in the city,” including homeless kids, Abbott said. “We’re talking about trying to get 150 kids to graduate high school and get on a career path. … We have to move forward with whatever process gets the money out the quickest.”

Ribeiro said the new grant process will be done “in an expedited way”  to get the programs going as soon as possible. He also said the mayor has committed to submitting legislation to give the WIC grant-making authority going forward.

Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, said she was not optimistic that the matter will be resolved before the end of the school year. “This is happening in the context of the worst economic circumstances for these young people,” she said. “Their lives can’t be put on hold for years. They have to have a lightning-speed process. … [But] even in the best of worlds it’s months.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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