A federal court-appointed administrator in charge of the District's special education transportation program, under fire from school officials for overspending his budget, is attempting to save money by switching all full-time bus drivers and attendants to part-time status.

David Gilmore, appointed in 2003 after parents of special-needs students sued the school system, says he would save $2 million a year, including salaries and benefits, by eliminating the full-time positions. He says full-time staffers can agree to become part-timers as of June 22 or forfeit their jobs.

Besides saving money, Gilmore said, the move will rectify a long-standing disparity between 1,300 part-time and 110 full-time workers who make different hourly rates for the same work.

"It doesn't make any sense for one small group of employees to earn more money than their counterparts who do exactly the same work," Gilmore said. "This issue of unequal pay, if it were race-based, would be illegal."

But the union representing the full-time drivers is challenging Gilmore's plan, which would cut salaries from $20 to $15.81 an hour. Union leaders say Gilmore already is taking advantage of part-time workers by paying them the lower rate while requiring many of them to work up to 100 hours during a two-week period, 30 hours above the contract limit.

"He wants to classify them as part-time but work them full-time," said Thomas Ratliff, president of Teamsters Local 639. "Some part-timers work more than full-timers."

Since taking over, Ratliff says, Gilmore has eliminated about 60 full-time positions. "This is a union-busting tactic," Ratliff said, adding that he is seeking an injunction from the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board to stop the elimination of full-time jobs. "He is not negotiating with us. He is just making demands."

Part-timers are represented by another union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman shifted authority over special education transportation from the school system to Gilmore to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by parents in 1995. The suit asserted that students were not getting to school on time and that they were spending too much time on buses.

Gilmore oversees the transit of 4,000 special-needs students on yellow buses and another 8,000 through public transportation. He has had a rocky relationship with the special education department, the school board and drivers.

The school system and the D.C. Council approved $61.2 million for Gilmore's current budget for the 2004-2005 school year, significantly less than the $75 million he requested. School officials have criticized him for exceeding his budget by $8 million last year and a projected $14 million this year. Gilmore said he and Superintendent Clifford B. Janey are negotiating an agreement to settle the budget dispute.

The school board has blasted Gilmore for the cost overruns. He blamed the problem partly on the special education department for its inability to educate thousands of special-needs students within the school system.

The District has one of the highest per-pupil costs in the nation because it must pay transportation costs and tuition for a disproportionate number of special education students to attend private schools and public schools outside the system. The District doesn't have enough trained special education teachers, and many schools are not equipped to accommodate special-needs students. For instance, many of the schools lack elevators and ramps.

Despite the criticism of Gilmore, school board member Carolyn N. Graham, who chairs an ad hoc committee looking into how the system can reduce its special education costs, said she was pleased with his proposal. "We've got to save money, we've got to use resources more prudently," Graham said. "If it means switching drivers to part-time status to maximize [resources], we've got to do that."

Gilmore said the school board has thwarted his other efforts to save money. Early this year, he urged the board to purchase the buses it was leasing. But the board never acted on the proposal, which Gilmore said would save $28 million over six years.

Throughout his tenure, bus drivers have criticized Gilmore, asserting that he has mistreated them and mismanaged the department.

Jeanette Benjamin, a full-timer and a 17-year veteran of the department who has worked as an driver and attendant, said she plans to retire early rather than switch to part-time status.

"I feel what he's doing is very unfair. He's doing us an injustice," Benjamin said.

"It's like a smack in the face."

Karen Wise, a D.C. school bus driver for 16 years, makes her views known at a union meeting.

Tommy Ratliff, president of Teamsters Local 639, led a turbulent discussion on the possibility that the last of the full-time special-ed bus drivers could become part-timers.