Fenty Faces Backlash From Problems in Youth Jobs

By David Nakamura and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 10, 2008

It did not take long for Summer Spencer to learn how highly her boss, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, valued the D.C. summer youth jobs program.

Shortly after she was hired last year to run the city's employment agency, Fenty (D) gave her a directive: Turn no student away. To the mayor, the work-training program was a linchpin in his bid to improve the education system and decrease crime.

"Regardless of when they sign up . . . they get a job," Spencer, in an address to business leaders several months ago, recalled the mayor telling her.

Fenty's enthusiasm was based on personal experience: He scored a summer job from Mayor Marion Barry (D) as a teenager in the 1980s. It was also based on political opportunism: The jobs program has been a sacred cow for D.C. mayors, a way to offer opportunity to young people while hoping to reap goodwill from parents and students.

But over the past several weeks, Fenty's push to rapidly expand the program has backfired, with a $31 million cost overrun and organizational chaos resulting in one of the most high-profile stumbles of the administration. Instead of building Fenty's popularity, the program has raised questions about his management. In addition to D.C. Council members' calls for investigations of the program, some business leaders are concerned. Even administration officials say they worry about losing the hard-earned support of the private sector.

"In order to run a successful program, you've got to have parameters," said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "You can't continue to add to the program and expect it to go off like clockwork."

Managing parameters in the jobs program has been a challenge for the administration.

When the program began June 16, Spencer's agency, the Department of Employment Services, was flooded by more than 21,000 students signing up. That figure, at least 7,000 more than last year's and far above projections, caught agency employees off guard. It also overwhelmed the new computer system, which had been installed to avoid the pay problems of years past.

Within weeks, as still more youths signed on, hundreds complained of being underpaid. Others were paid too much, and many were sent to the wrong job sites or had nowhere to report.

The chaos has busted the program's $21 million budget so badly that Fenty requested an additional $31 million last month to cover the payroll, a total of $52 million. It did not help that minimum wage rose to $6.55 on July 24, which was not factored into the estimates. Neither was a pay rate of up to $10 an hour for college students.

"The idea of enrolling as many teens as possible and then figuring out how to pay for it violates the basic principles of budgeting: deciding how much to spend and then sticking with it," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which studies budget and tax issues.

The Fenty administration has provided few answers to what went wrong and has declined to let Spencer, who fired summer program manager Yasha Williams, speak with reporters. Aides said Fenty will announce the results of an internal investigation by his office when he returns next week from a personal trip to the Olympics in Beijing.

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