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CHAVOUS: CANCEL CONTRACT

School official says busing problems wonít be fixed until next year

(Published October 4, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

System-wide problems that have made hundreds of D.C. special education students late for school, and their parents late for work in recent weeks, may not be completely fixed until January, a school official said.

But Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, who chairs the city councilís education committee, says he wonít wait till the school year is half over and is looking into breaking D.C. Public Schoolsí transportation contract with Laidlaw Transit.

School transportation director Al Winder blames computer glitches for widespread delays, missed pickups and wrong locations.

"Our database does not talk to the contractorís database," Winder said in an interview. "You have to manually transmit all the information."

Winder said he does not know how many transportation complaints school officials have received but said there are "hundreds" of unresolved complaints backlogged in his office.

The only long-term solution, Winder said, is to upgrade the school systemís computer software, an initiative he said he hopes to complete by the first of the year. He said he is "greatly concerned" about the transportation problems and that he will continue to work on resolving cases one at a time, even though the extra work puts a drain on his staff.

Winder also conceded that many of the Laidlaw drivers seem to be unfamiliar with the city.

In the meantime, complaints from angry parents pour into the offices of city council members, the mayor and the school system.

Seven-year-old Serena Perritt, who suffers from seizures and learning disabilities, was lost for more than three hours after a school bus dropped her off at the wrong address and left her in the care of a stranger, said her mother, Darnella Perritt.

In testimony before councilís education committee, Perritt said she was "devastated" by the Sept. 2 incident and immediately withdrew her daughter from the transportation system. Perritt said she had to drop out of school herself in order to drive her daughter to and from Sharpe Health School in Petworth each day.

Another Sharpe parent, Huenita Massey, said a bus driver allowed only one of her two daughters on the bus for several days, even though both girls were going to the same school, because the younger daughterís name was not on the driverís passenger list. Massey said she had to borrow a car and pay for gas for nearly a week, taking the second girl to and from Sharpe.

After she finally got both girlsí names added to the list, Massey said the bus stopped coming altogether. A few days after that the bus resumed coming, but two hours late.

Since school opened, there have been three different drivers on the route her daughters ride, Massey said.

On Sept. 23 she said she heard the driver tell her two daughters as they boarded that they would have to ride with other children on their laps because the bus was full.

Door-to-door transportation for special education and handicapped students is provided to about 3,000 students under a $30 million management contract with Chicago-based Laidlaw Transit.

"This contract is not working," Chavous said. "We are looking to see what we can do to get out of it. My office has been besieged with non-stop calls (about this) since mid-summer."

Chavous has scheduled a hearing on public school transportation for Nov. 4. He said he will subpoena personnel records and other information from Laidlaw, which has not responded to previous requests for information.

Laidlaw General Manager Ross Leidensperger said the company was told by D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman not to release any information to council and not to testify.

Ackerman, who has failed to appear at most of the councilís school oversight hearings, did not return press calls for comment.

Chavous said he received no response from Ackerman to a Sept. 10 written request for detailed information about drivers, routes and complaints received.

Ackerman also did not respond to a Sept. 21 letter from Councilman Phil Mendelson, D-At large, that requested information about the transportation problems.

Mendelson said he wanted to know why Rene Simms never got an answer to her complaint. Simms, whose 12-year-old son has cerebral palsy, said her child missed summer school entirely because the bus never picked him up. Now that school has started, Simms said she is in danger of losing her new job because she must arrive late to work when the school bus does not come on time. Simms said she made dozens of calls on her sonís behalf but to no avail.

Meanwhile, Laidlaw officials acknowledged there have been some problems but also point out that school transportation has been unreliable for years, long before Laidlaw took over the operation in April.

"Itís a tricky process," Leidensperger said. "A lot of folks donít really understand how complex it is. A simple keystroke, SE versus SW, can throw off the entire route."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator