Lawyers representing D.C. special education students asked a federal judge yesterday to appoint a receiver to take over the school system's transportation operation, saying that bus service remains abysmal despite previous court orders and fines in the long-running case.
In hundreds of pages filed in U.S. District Court, the lawyers described a transportation operation riddled with systemic problems and said D.C. public school administrators have not had the competence or will to improve it.
Yesterday's court filing, part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the District that began in 1995, said lawyers in the case had received 3,369 complaints from parents about bus service this school year alone. Many of the parents said the bus did not pick up their child on time, if at all. The buses transport about 3,600 special-needs children in the 67,500-student school system.
"Things are worse this year than they have ever been, and that's saying something with the history of this case," said Kelly Bagby, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. "There's nothing else that can be done. Kids have missed enough school. . . . The defendants have just stopped trying."
Louis J. Erste, the school system's chief operating officer, said that school officials oppose the appointment of a receiver and that "the pace of improvement is picking up." Erste said plans to create more special education programs in D.C. schools will reduce the burden on the bus service.
Erste also said on-time performance has improved in the past few years, but he was unable to provide any data. "An extremely high majority of students that we transport each day are being transported on time," he said.
Various D.C. government agencies have been in court-ordered receivership in recent years, including those overseeing mental health, public housing, child and family services and medical care at the city jail. Currently, no city agencies are being overseen by a receiver.
Attorneys for the special education students asked the court to appoint as receiver David I. Gilmore, the city's former public housing receiver. They said the receiver should have power over all aspects of the bus service, from payroll to personnel to finance, and complete independence from the school system.
Soon after School Superintendent Paul L. Vance was hired in 2000, he pledged to improve the bus operation, saying that doing so was not "rocket science."
But more than two years later, many parents say service is as bad as ever. They say that buses are often late and that despite court-ordered limits for ride times, students spend as much as three hours in transit.
Michelle Spurlock of Northwest Washington, one of the parents mentioned in yesterday's filing, said her 12-year-old son, Marcus, often is not picked up on time and is returned home late. She said he has been repeatedly assaulted on the bus by other students, whom bus attendants have failed to control.
"It's awful," Spurlock said in an interview. "There's been no improvements."
School officials said their efforts to improve transportation have been set back by an unusually high rate of absenteeism among bus drivers. Drivers continue to complain that they routinely receive paychecks for less than the correct amount and are not given enough hours to work.
The absenteeism rate reached 41 percent on Jan. 16 and 35 percent on Jan. 17 because of a two-day "sick-out" by drivers and attendants, according to a memo from a court-appointed special master in the case. More than 800 students were not picked up, according to a school official's memo. A letter from the special master said the school system failed to provide information about the impact on students and its plans to deal with the absenteeism.
Erste said school officials are planning to take steps to address the problem.
Many of the special-needs children who are bused are taken to private schools, in the District and the suburbs, because the D.C. school system has failed to provide enough programs in-house.
The bus operation has repeatedly been criticized by D.C. Council members for its failures and high costs. Last school year, according to the court papers, the school system spent $61.2 million on transportation -- more than $10 million over budget. The system has routinely spent more than $10,000 per child on transportation.
The court papers cite numerous plans on which the school system has failed to follow through. In the fall, attorneys for the special education students requested that the school system be fined more than $1 million for its failures, but a hearing has not been held on that issue.