Laidlaw Transit Inc., the company that transports most of the District’s special-needs students to school, says it has had enough. It says D.C. government pulls it in so many different directions it no longer is interested in doing business with the city. Ordinarily, one might be willing to sympathize with the company. After all, there are so many layers of oversight regarding schools that even the superintendent recently decided to call it quits. But apparently both sides have legitimate grievances that must be ironed out for the children’s sake.
A work stoppage by Laidlaw drivers May 19 left nearly 1,000 special-needs students stranded. The drivers had refused to board buses and tried to block drivers who were willing to work. Why? They are afraid contract disputes between school officials and Laidlaw officials mean they are going to lose their jobs. Fortunately, police intervened and things were pretty much back to normal by the end of the school day.
But, rest assured, disruptions in transportation will recur and not necessarily because buses are in disrepair (because they are) or because there are too many layers of oversight (because there are). Transportation problems will surface again because both sides are ignoring their respective obligations.
The city and Laidlaw agreed on a $22 million, three-year contract in May 1999. The contract called for Laidlaw to overhaul and take control of a transportation system beset with numerous problems, including poor service and unlicensed drivers. Laidlaw was supposed to redesign bus routes, manage service, hire drivers and provide extra buses if needed. Now city officials are complaining that Laidlaw did not hold up its end of the contract, and Laidlaw officials are complaining the company cannot deliver as promised because school officials failed to provide enough buses and accurate route information. Smack in the middle are nearly 3,000 special-education students who don’t get to school on time.
These very same problems have continued routinely for several years when the school system delivered bus service, when another contractor handled the job and now with Laidlaw. Interestingly enough, parents complained more this school year than in prior years about the poor service. The D.C. Council has been urging the superintendent to get rid of Laidlaw since last year, and months ago school officials threatened to fine Laidlaw for any contract irregularity. Sometime between then and now company officials decided to contract with Laidlaw on a month-to-month basis. If that is within the city’s purview so be it.
Laidlaw, meanwhile, says it will pull out entirely on June 16, the last day of the regular school year (which, understandably, set off the protest by drivers). Contracting disputes notwithstanding, the bottom line is children must be transported to school and transported on time. Unfortunately, that’s not something D.C. parents have been able to take for granted.