By David Nakamura and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 10, 2008; C01
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.
Yesterday, the mayor said in a statement, "We wanted to give every young person who wanted a summer job the opportunity to work and when we had an increased interest, the directive was given to accommodate them. We welcome any and all analysis that can help [the employment department] and the administration do a better job next year."
The preliminary findings of the internal probe, based on visits to dozens of work sites, show that the Employment Services Department did not know how many youths were enrolled, a Fenty administration official said. Open enrollment was also the policy last year, but Spencer had just come aboard and the program had not been as widely publicized. And although many participants quit or never showed up this year, their names remained on the payroll, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the review is not complete.
By this week, the administration will have a firm head count, the official said, and money could be saved once the payroll is scrubbed.
"In many ways, we're kind of victims of our ambition here," City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in an interview late last month.
The summer jobs program began more than three decades ago as a federally funded initiative. When Marion Barry became mayor in 1979, he pledged to make it a hallmark of his administration, and enrollment reached 25,000 at its peak. Barry, now the Ward 8 council member, is still beloved by residents who thank him for their first paycheck.
Mayors have continued to support the effort. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), while dealing with the mid-1990s fiscal crisis, instructed his budget team to make sure the program was funded, although participation dropped to between 5,000 and 12,000 a year.
Fenty sought to quickly build it back up. Last summer, he got an additional $5 million from the council to extend the program from six to eight weeks for about 14,000 youths. This year, he made the program 10 weeks with a budget for 15,000 workers.
In January, Fenty and Spencer met with 80 business leaders at the Hogan & Hartson law firm to launch a campaign named "Just Take One," pressing the businesses to accept summer workers. Historically, most young people have worked at city agencies or nonprofit groups because businesses have complained about poor work habits among the students, ages 14 to 21.
"So many young people can get into trouble when they're not challenged, when they're not busy," Fenty told the business crowd.
Some business leaders responded to Fenty's call this year. Lang, of the Chamber of Commerce, agreed to place 300 students at area firms.
The recruiting efforts among youths went even better. At a May 15 oversight hearing before council member Carol Schwartz's Committee on Workforce Development and Government Operations, Spencer said 15,500 youths had signed up.
Schwartz (R-At Large) was impressed. The council and mayor, she told Spencer, had been in "a contest about who can fund more jobs for young people. I like this contest."
"It's a good contest," Spencer agreed.
Inside the Employment Services Department, however, chaos ruled. The new computer system, installed to permit electronic timecards, was not tested thoroughly, according to administration officials. Contracts with employers were not in place when the program began.
And hundreds of young people continued to stream in looking for work. Fenty ordered enrollment to remain open, although he and Tangherlini had been briefed about the high participation.
After the first pay period, 19,482 students were paid. Although businesses reported students failing to show up -- Lang said 122 of the chamber's 300 interns did not report the first day -- the payroll continued to increase. By the second pay period, 20,149 youths were paid, and the number reached 21,018 by the third period, according to city financial records.
It's not what Fenty had in mind when he and Spencer were wooing business leaders.
"This city is headed toward unparalleled greatness," Fenty told them then. "But we have a few things we need to work harder on, and most of those things deal with young people."