The D.C. special education system’s odyssey through the federal courts continues. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that while there has been some improvement, the District needs to dramatically ramp up its efforts to identify, assess and serve preschool-age children with special needs.

And after multiple attempts to end court supervision and return sole responsibility for special education transportation service to the District, Judge Paul L. Friedman has extended the “transition period” to Oct. 31, 2012.

The District has been so challenged by the task of providing reliable transportation to about 3,500 special education students that its bus service has been under federal court supervision for much of the last decade, a product of the Petties class action lawsuit. Based on signs of improvement last year, Friedman initiated a gradual transition from his designated Transportation Administrator, David Gilmore, back to the District.

But Friedman’s latest order, issued Monday, marks the fifth time that either Gilmore or the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) requested a delay in completing the handoff because of continuing issues with service.

OSSE and Gilmore have been firing briefs and memoranda across their respective bows since early summer. Gilmore, now a court-appointed special master, asserted in a report to Friedman that OSSE “knowingly” used improperly maintained or uninspected buses to transport students, a charge that OSSE denies. Gilmore also cited substandard on-time performance, lagging maintenance and inadequate technology, that he said could plague the beginning of the 2011-12 school year.

OSSE acknowledged to Friedman that while “some limited noncompliance” remained, the opening of schools went reasonably well. On-time performance in the first month of the new school year averaged 80 percent, which the agency described as “within striking distance” of the required 94 percent. On Thursday, it placed its on-time rate at 88 percent, but did not provide a week-to-week breakdown. OSSE said in court filings that “perfection is not required” to clear the Petties bar.

Gilmore said that while OSSE had once again shown improvement — for which he pointedly credited City Administrator Allen Lew, not Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley — it had yet to demonstrate “durable compliance” with the court’s orders. Even OSSE said it could use more time, asking for an extension to April 30, 2012. Friedman sided with Gilmore and set the October 2012 deadline — probably so that OSSE will have to demonstrate that it can handle another August school opening season.