D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman today will ask up to 70 people in the school system's transportation department to reapply for their jobs, according to sources in her administration, who said the move is a bid to fix chronic problems in serving the transit needs of special education students.
The personnel shake-up will target administrative positions, not bus drivers or attendants, the sources said, and most of those reapplying for their jobs will not be rehired. Those replaced will have the option of being reassigned as bus drivers and attendants or in other jobs.
Employees will be told this morning that they have until Oct. 25 to submit new job applications.
The school system's transportation department is used almost exclusively to take thousands of special education students to and from schools each day, and frustrated parents have long complained about late pickups and returns--or in some cases no pickups at all.
Dozens of children, some in wheelchairs, sometimes have been left on the corner because the bus or van did not show up, or was not large enough to take them on board. Recently, some children in wheelchairs were dropped as attendants helped them on or off the vehicle.
Ackerman's new transportation chief, Al Winder, would not comment about the restructuring. But he said recently that the department he inherited two months ago is in bad shape and is paying salaries to an unknown number of people who actually work elsewhere in the system. In addition, Winder said he has learned that many of his employees have no transportation training but have been "dumped" there over the years.
"I've known straight out-and-out messes," he said, "but I have to say this has been one of the more difficult challenges."
Ackerman also is reviewing the school system's nearly $40 million contract with Laidlaw, a transit firm hired to help bus special education students. The company vowed to fix several preexisting problems when it began operating this summer, but troubles remain, school officials say.
Solving transportation and other problems in its special education programs is crucial to Ackerman's administration; more than 1 in 10 children in the 72,000-student system have emotional, physical or learning disabilities. Special education services, which in many cases require the school system to pay tuition at private schools, now account for nearly one-third of the system's annual budget.
After being accused for months by parents and D.C. Council members of ignoring the problem, Ackerman this summer hired a new special education director, Anne Gay. She also ordered dozens of special education employees to reapply for their jobs, started new special education programs inside the city's schools and fired the head of transportation, Kevin West, replacing him with Winder.
Laidlaw, which provides most of the bus drivers and attendants, was brought in after problems developed with two previous contractors. But parents and elected representatives say things have not improved.
Officials at Laidlaw say the firm ran into many difficulties when school started because it was given 900 changes to the routing a week before classes began. School officials say Laidlaw should have resolved the problems more quickly.
Special education activists complain that the city's procurement department, which negotiated the Laidlaw contract, failed to include clear performance terms. The contract, for example, specifies that Laidlaw must provide monthly management reports to the school system but doesn't say what they must contain. Thus, the school administration is not getting information it needs, including driver and attendant licensing, drug testing and background checks.
D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the education committee, has said the contract should be terminated and that the school system should handle transportation itself.