- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2000

It's 7:30 a.m. any weekday.
Five-year-old special-education student Ja-mesha Kender is strapped into her bright purple wheelchair, looking out the window of her Southeast, Washington, D.C., home, waiting for her school bus.
It's 8 a.m.
She waits.
It's 9 a.m
She waits.
At 10:30 a.m., the little girl with cerebral palsy is hungry. Her dimple gone, she still waits.
She is now two hours late for school.
"She is dressed by 7:30, with her coat on, just sitting, sitting, sitting," said her mother, Antonious Williams. "I'll start calling the school system to find out what is going on. They know nothing. Sometimes, they come as late as 11 a.m. Sometimes, they don't come at all."
In May 1999, when Chicago-based Laidlaw Transportation Inc. took over most of a $30 million contract to drive special-education buses for the District's public-school system, the company promised they could pick up the children on time, hire better drivers, and provide the kind of service parents and school administrators could depend upon.
So far, that hasn't happened.
And after 12 months of poor service and broken promises, angry parents are fed up and they want city officials and school administrators to get tough on Laidlaw.
"The terms of the current contract have not been fulfilled," said D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat. "There are daily calls from parents complaining that their children are not getting picked up on time and getting dropped off as late as 8 p.m. The buses aren't up to standards."
Laidlaw officials, contacted by The Washington Times for response to the criticisms leveled against the company, did not return phone calls.
Mr. Chavous said that he believes the contractor is overpaid and consistently fails to deliver on its promises.
"If you care about kids, you wouldn't run out and renew this contract," he said. "I was shocked that they did."
Mr. Chavous is referring to a controversial April 30 decision by the school system to renew the Laidlaw contract for another year, despite concerns aired by parents.
Criticism of that decision from city officials such as Mr. Chavous and financial control board member Constance B. Newman convinced school administrators to rescind the one-year offer. Instead, they offered Laidlaw a 30-day extension that will expire at the end of this month.
In the meantime, school officials were directed to revisit their options regarding the contract. There aren't many renew the contract in some form, find another contractor, or bring the transportation system in-house.
Many parents think any option is better than renewing Laidlaw's contract.
Markeesha Johnson has been calling Laidlaw every day for the past three weeks to see if and when the bus is going to appear to take her 8-year-old autistic daughter, Dencia, to Green Elementary School. For her, that's nothing new. She's complained for years.
"It's always interesting," she said with bemusement. "They constantly change the routes and times and don't tell you. They just show up. Meanwhile, Dencia sits and waits and wonders, 'Am I going to school?' while expecting something to happen. I call to find out when they are coming while mentally reviewing my back-up plan."
Parents said the erratic schedules take a toll on a child's education and sense of security. They also threaten some parents' employment.
"I am often late to work because I am waiting for the bus," said one parent who declined to be named. "When they don't show up, I have to take my daughter to work with me. My employers are understanding, but there is a limit."
And in some cases, busing problems have threatened a child's safety.
Two weeks ago, a learning-impaired boy fell asleep on the bus on his way to school. After the route was finished, the driver and attendant brought the bus back to the depot on New York Avenue, parked and left. The boy woke up, managed to open the bus, and walked around confused before finally finding someone to help him.
School officials were outraged but not surprised.
"It's terrible that that could have happened," said one school official who declined to be named. "But it isn't the first incident, and it isn't going to be the last."
The driver and attendant, both Laidlaw employees, were fired immediately, said school officials.
Linda James' main concern is that her 17-year-old son comes home in one piece from Mamie D. Lee School in Northeast.
Her son, Kenneth Beasley, is severely learning disabled. He had to go to the hospital last year after a bus driver sprayed him in the eyes with window cleaner, said Mrs. James.
"That was the worst incident," she said. "The driver used to curse him, slap him, kick him, beat him up sometimes. Other times, he just didn't pick him up because they didn't want him on the bus."
Children sometimes get lost on the system.
Dencia, picked up on time one morning last year, was taken to Shaad Elementary School the wrong school. A Shaad teacher realized she didn't belong there, called Green Elementary and was finally able to make sense of the situation. But because Dencia was not on the bus driver's list, he refused to take her home. Instead, she remained at Shaad until 4 p.m., when another Laidlaw driver finally agreed to take Dencia to Green.
Ms. Johnson wasn't informed until late afternoon.
"It's sad and comical that something like this happens in the nation's capital," said Ms. Johnson.
The D.C. school system buses only special-education students about 3,500 of the system's 71,000 students. Most of the students go to schools outside the District, with the school system providing bus service for about 900.
Laidlaw takes care of the other 2,600 special-education students under a contract signed last spring with the financial control board a contract the board hoped would solve a problem that has dogged the school system.
After years of complaints and a series of lawsuits, the school's transportation system came under court supervision in 1996. Even with the suit, the complaints have not subsided.
And Laidlaw's arrival hasn't changed the level of frustration among parents in the city. From August through Jan. 14, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) logged 3,185 complaints from parents on busing issues, according to a school transportation official's testimony in a March hearing in front of the City Council.
At least one out of 10 D.C. special-education students missed some morning classes during the first two months of the year, according to a March 6 court report filed by Elise Baach, the special master appointed by the court to oversee the case.
And a DCPS analysis calculated that in the first two weeks of the school year, Laidlaw failed to pick up almost 200 children. When efforts to get Laidlaw to correct the oversights failed, exasperated DCPS officials decided to take back some of the Laidlaw routes.
But the problems continued.
From August through February, another 3,000 buses were more than 15 minutes late. While school officials say that number has decreased, DCPS continues to take over routes. But the District's drivers are not perfect either, say parents and school officials.
"We have had ongoing problems with DCPS," said Sharon Raimo, executive director of the St. Coletta School in Alexandria. "We have one child assigned to a particular route. The bus won't pick him up because he is not on their manifest. He's been assigned. It makes no sense."
In the meantime, the special-education transportation tab continues to grow. In the 1998-99 school year, the city spent $27 million to transport 3,000 children. This school year, the bill rose to $35 million for about 3,500 students. School officials have asked for $40 million more than $10,000 per student for next year, as special education has come to account for 30 percent of the school's annual budget.
"At $10,000 per child, why can't we get this right?" asked Mr. Chavous.
Antonious Williams is wondering the same thing as her daughter waits for the bus. "She shouldn't have to deal with this," she said, looking at her daughter. "She has enough to deal with."

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