- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

Every school day Fairfax County public schools, one of the largest school systems on the East Coast, manage to shuttle more than 104,000 students to and from school without a major hitch. If only that were the case with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), which buses far fewer students shorter distances than surrounding jurisdictions. For DCPS, late pickups, bus shortages and a shortage of drivers are as routine as the opening and closing of the school day.

It has been that way for years, which is part of the reason a lawsuit filed four years ago on behalf of special-education students in the District has yet to be resolved. For the most part, the District buses children with special needs like LaKendra Nelson, who rides about six miles each way to and from Marie Reed Learning Center in Northwest. LaKendra, a sixth-grader, has osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder commonly called brittle bone disease, which limits her movement to a motorized wheelchair. The school district has hired a company to pick up children with special needs like LaKendra, but sometimes the bus is so late she doesn't get to school until 11 a.m. The tardy service means LaKendra misses not only school breakfast but classes as well. At 12 years old, though, she is old enough to understand the politics of it all. "Every child should be able to go to school," she recently told The Washington Post, "and I can't get to school just because a bus doesn't come. They forget to come and get me."

"They" is Laidlaw Transit Inc., the Chicago-based contractor hired by the control board and managed by the superintendent. The company is supposed to be transporting about 2,600 students to District Schools with special-education programs. But it isn't. A court-appointed special master seeking to resolve the District's special-ed transportation problems, Elise Baach, says one in 10 handicapped students missed significant parts of morning classes during the first two months of the year. Indeed, the company's performance, says Ms. Baach, has actually declined since last year. A company spokesman told The Washington Post that Laidlaw is trying to "overcome a lot of these challenges." But it can't explain why bus service for students like LaKendra is so erratic.

"This is a major disservice to children with special needs," a spokesman for D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous told this page Friday. "All parties need to get together because there is enough blame to pass around. Somebody has got to get a grip on this."

Taxpayers spend millions each year on school transportation services, with the bulk, more than $22 million, going to Laidlaw. The city can recoup some costs because Laidlaw's contract calls for a $50 penalty every time a route is missed. Laidlaw missed more than 1,000 routes in the beginning of the school year and, with students only three months away from the end of the school year, parents are still complaining and the major players are still talking.

But the goal is not to get reimbursement from Laidlaw. It's to get children delivered to school on time. If the city is somehow making special-education transportation unnecessarily difficult, it should take steps to alleviate the problem. If Laidlaw can't meet the terms of the contract, find another contractor. Just don't punish the students for someone else's incompetence by failing even to get them to school in the first place.

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