Feud over DC’s youth-jobs initiative reflects dire future for city’s workforce

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that the nonprofit Sasha Bruce Youthwork received a city contract to provide employment training for at-risk D.C. youth. Sasha Bruce applied for such a contract but did not receive an award. This version has been corrected.

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Like so many mayors, legislators, governors, and presidents, Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Thursday grasped at straws to solve his city’s gaping unemployment problem.

He unveiled “One City, One Hire,” where the government is imploring the District’s employers to commit to hiring at least one unemployed District resident. At a news conference, Gray (D) announced that the campaign would begin with commitments from about 15 businesses.

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

Fifteen jobs isn’t nothing, but in a city where the latest unemployment figures stand at 10.8 percent, it’s a case of good intentions falling short of what reality demands. In a city with neighborhoods where one in four employable residents doesn’t have a job, reality demands that its government pull every lever at its disposal to help grow its workforce. But the District has found that difficult.

Consider what is happening with its effort to prepare the District’s at-risk youth to enter the workforce. What appears to be a botched procurement has led to ongoing contracting squabbles that now mean District residents ages 14 to 21 aren’t getting services that could make the difference between employment and joblessness.

This requires a rewind to last December, when, in the waning days of the administration of then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the city’s procurement office awarded $4 million a year in local and federal funds to 10 groups. They were to provide job training and other assistance to nearly 700 youths, both in schools and out.

But two weeks after work began on the contracts, the city abruptly canceled them “due to concerns surrounding the procurement process.” What happened, according to several sources familiar with what happened, is that a well-connected group, Friends of Carter Barron, raised questions after it failed to win a contract.

Groups that had won contracts under a process that included expert evaluators were incensed that the city would summarily cancel the contracts, which can be renewed for up to five years. They were told that applications that were handed in late were unfairly considered; when they asked why those applications couldn’t simply be tossed, they were told that key documentation had gone missing.

“I’m not sure it was a perfect process, but it seemed to be a group of reputable organizations that got the contracts,” said Anne Abbott, an analyst with the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, which hasn’t directly bid on the contracts but represents several groups that have.

Previous contractors were allowed to continue their work through the summer, though they could not enroll new students. Meanwhile, with new directors of employment services and procurement in place, the selection process was restarted. When the winners were announced last month, leaders of some of the city’s best youth service providers were left scratching their heads.

The Urban Alliance Foundation, which had initially won contracts worth more than $200,000 that would have allowed it to add up to 50 kids to its well-regarded in-school job readiness programs, didn’t make the final cut. The Latin American Youth Center, a decades-old organization serving at-risk kids with a host of social programs, won a contract to serve out-of-school kids, albeit at a cut rate. Its application to serve in-school kids was tossed, said executive director Lori Kaplan, after officials objected that it targeted kids 14 to 18 years old — that is, kids who are typically in school.

Kaplan has asked the city’s Office of Contracting and Procurement for a routine debriefing on the contract award. She’s heard nothing back. “I have questions about how it’s been handled,” she said. “There’s been no transparency on who the evaluators were. . . . They’re not funding necessarily the strong youth development groups they should be investing in.”

The groups that got contracts include some well-regarded organizations, such as Covenant House. They also include Friends of Carter Barron (though it is protesting a related contract it failed to secure). But the winners also include “groups I’ve not even heard of,” Abbott said.

Urban Alliance is challenging the contract awards, alleging that the winner, Maryland-based Synergistic, is not qualified to do the work and, moreover, is paying exorbitant fees to its top directors and a related for-profit company it owns. Calls to Synergistic’s Camp Springs office were not returned Thursday.

James Staton Jr., the District’s new procurement chief, said the city “followed the book on this process.” While the protests are pending, agency officials declined to detail the evaluation process, and services for the kids have been halted.

“You don’t have a sense of who’s paying attention to any of this,” Kaplan said, noting that Gray once ran Covenant House. “Shouldn’t we support the high-quality organizations that the mayor knows and believes in?”

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