Summer Daze

Friday, August 8, 2008

TO CALL the D.C. summer youth jobs program a train wreck is to be polite. Some students who don't show up to work are still receiving paychecks. Others who do haven't been paid at all. The city overshot its budget by about $11 million at the start of the program; District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi granted a request for an additional $20 million to meet the payroll for the remaining five weeks. The cost overruns exceed the original budget by more than $30 million. Yasha Williams, the head of the office responsible for the program, was fired in the middle of last month.

The mayor's office is contrite, admitting it mismanaged the program. City officials place much of the blame on the Department of Employment Services, the agency that oversees the program. This tells only part of the story. In the months leading up to summer, Employment Services officials presented the mayor's office with statistics and charts that showed that the program was on track to succeed. City officials took the presentations at face value and didn't probe deeply enough. If they had, they would have seen that the program was in disarray. Jobs had not been lined up for many students, and the computer system that controlled the payroll -- essential to determining the program's budget -- was riddled with errors. Unfathomably, budget estimates didn't account for a planned increase in the minimum wage.

This was Ms. Williams's first year in charge of a program that is almost always a challenge to pull off. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) compounded her problems by lengthening the program and allowing students to enroll after an April deadline. The D.C. Council, particularly council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who started the program when he was mayor almost 30 years ago, is upset. The council has asked the offices of the inspector general and the auditor to investigate the problems; the mayor's office has agreed to comply. The mayor's office will issue its own report Tuesday detailing what went wrong.

What kind of lesson does this teach students, many of whom are watching the government up close for the first time? What do they learn about the work ethic when they show up for work and don't get paid while other students stay at home and receive a paycheck? It's too late to salvage this year's program, but the mayor needs to learn from the mistakes to ensure a better performance next summer.


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