D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has fired the head of her transportation department and is eliminating the jobs of nearly 100 central administrators as she steps up efforts to revamp the school system's dysfunctional special education operations.
Ackerman fired transportation director Kevin West this week amid a flood of new complaints that special education students are not getting to summer school on time or are not picked up from their homes at all.
In May, Ackerman said she planned to make some 100 staff members and administrators reapply for their jobs. But late last month, in what school officials called a major restructuring of special education, the superintendent eliminated 97 positions and created about 70 new ones. Those who lost their jobs may apply for the new positions but have no guarantee they will be hired, officials said.
"We have to fix this, and we are going to fix this," Ackerman said yesterday. "It is harder than many people can probably imagine, but we will do it."
This is the second shake-up Ackerman has ordered since becoming superintendent in May 1998. Last summer, she fired most of the personnel department.
The District's special education programs handle more than 1 in 10 children in the 71,000-student system and account for 30 percent of the annual school budget. Critics say the school system has long failed to meet the needs of thousands of children with emotional, physical or learning disabilities. These children, they say, have waited years for assessment and services, and data collection has been so poor that school officials don't know which services each child is getting or how many students the programs are serving.
Of particular concern is that the buses pick the children up late for school or are hours late bringing them home. Sometimes, no buses arrive to transport the children.
These and other failures are cited in the school system's latest report this week to the U.S. Department of Education, part of a three-year compliance agreement set in early 1988 to force special-ed improvements.
According to the report, more than 710 students are still waiting for an initial assessment of special education needs. More than 2,580 students identified as needing special-ed services, such as speech therapy, have not received them. More than 1,870 students haven't had their required evaluations, which are conducted once every three years. In 242 cases, the school system did not implement determinations made by hearing officers in due process cases, and there were 846 hearing requests in which a final decision was not issued within the required 45 days of the request.
The Department of Education could withhold $4 million in federal funds from the school district for failure to meet compliance goals, though officials say they will not do so while they believe Ackerman is making a good-faith effort to correct deficiencies.
Special education advocate Theresa Bollech expressed concern that the federal agency "lets D.C. public schools get away with violating the compliance agreement. There are steps and measures they could take to send a message that they are serious."
Ackerman had decided some time ago to replace West, who could not be reached for comment. The department spends nearly all of its resources transporting several thousand special-ed students to public and private schools across the Washington area.
She initially said she would transfer West. Then, according to school sources, she learned that failures were continuing, despite hiring a nationally known contractor, Laidlaw, to provide transportation services. The superintendent, these sources said, also felt West had not given her a clear picture of the problems.
Ackerman, who declined to discuss West's firing, calling it a personnel matter, said she is conducting a national search for a new transportation director with experience and may "borrow" an expert from another school system if necessary.
School officials had hoped transportation problems would ease last month when Laidlaw began providing bus drivers and other services. But children still are being picked up late or missed entirely. Part of the problem, officials say, is the lack of information provided by the transportation department.
"It's so frustrating," said 13-year-old Angela Hammond, who after three weeks in summer school still gets to school late. The ninth-grader said she and her mother have called so many people to complain that she can't keep count.
In a report filed recently in U.S. District Court, a court-appointed special master for transportation wrote, "It is clear that DCPS has been unable, to date, to achieve the opening of a school session without an inordinate number of transportation failures." She warned of graver problems when school starts in the fall.