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District's Special-Ed Problems Detailed

Official May Seek Court Intervention

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page B01

The court-appointed administrator in charge of transportation of special education students in the D.C. school system said yesterday he is poised to seek a judge's order requiring the school board to allocate an additional $14 million for the program.

David Gilmore, appointed by the federal court in 2003 to oversee the transit of about 12,000 special education students, released his semiannual report to a federal judge yesterday outlining what progress he had made in getting the students to school on time and correcting other long-standing problems in the program. Gilmore was appointed as part of a settlement reached in a class-action lawsuit that parents of special needs students filed in 1995 against the school system and D.C. government.

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In his 75-page report to U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, Gilmore said the school system has blocked his efforts to improve special education services, and the school board has not approved his full budget after six months.

"I'm making it clear in my letter to the judge that we've entered a period in my relationship with the school system and the city that is more contentious than it's ever been," Gilmore said in an interview.

The school system and D.C. Council "seem to want to throw out challenges to me rather than solve problems," he added.

Gilmore and school officials have been wrangling over his proposed budget since July, when he requested $75 million. Gilmore said he needs the amount, which is $14 million more than what the school board and the council allotted, to bring the transportation system fully into compliance with the consent decree and federal special education laws.

"I will go back to the court and ask the court to approve it," Gilmore said.

School officials said they have been discussing Gilmore's request and are dismayed he might go around them to the judge.

The school board, the D.C. Council and Congress have approved $61.2 million for special education transportation, said Thomas Brady, the school system's chief of business operations. "If we have to meet [the $75 million request], we'll have to take money out of the schools," he said. "We're looking at options now."

About 4,000 of the 12,000 special education students ride school buses; most of the others take public transportation.

In his report, Gilmore cited improvements he introduced into the transportation program. Absenteeism among bus drivers has been cut in half, from an average of 20 percent to less than 10 percent, he said. Global Positioning System devices are being installed on buses, an effort to help Gilmore monitor whether buses arrive on time. And he said he was able to secure retroactive pay for bus drivers who lost wages because the school system failed to recognize their step increases.

Still, the report asserts that the school system is a major obstacle to Gilmore's reform efforts.

Gilmore said the school system has made "no discernible movement" toward the goal of shifting more special education students from outside schools to in-house services. The District has among the highest overall per-pupil costs in the nation because it pays transportation and tuition expenses for many special education students to attend private facilities or public schools in neighboring districts.

School officials have "replied informally that they agree with that objective, but I don't see much action," Gilmore said.

Ray Bryant, associate superintendent for special education and student services, said the department has hired more teachers and therapists during the past three years and has the capacity to accommodate an additional 1,800 students with autism, mental retardation and other severe learning disabilities. Moreover, he added, the school system last fall renovated the Prospect Learning Center for special education students in Northwest Washington.

Bryant said school officials are focused on getting newly diagnosed special education students to stay in school system facilities, rather than on trying to lure back the students who are being educated elsewhere.

Lisae Jordan, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit that resulted in Gilmore's appointment, said parents do not necessarily want to shift their children back to D.C. schools.

"Parents tried for years to get their children serviced in neighborhood schools" in the District, Jordan said. They "would be reluctant to move the students from a placement where they are receiving a good education."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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