- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

David Healey, hired four months ago to fix the broken District of Columbia schools transportation system, concedes that reform has been slow to come in a department beset by absenteeism, nepotism, unqualified workers and payroll foul-ups.
But Mr. Healey says nothing is going to deter him in his efforts to clean up the District's school bus mess.
"I am not a bureaucrat," he said in a series of interviews last week. "I can't let anything stand in the way of helping these children."
Mr. Healey, who successfully overhauled a public school bus system in Houston, was brought here to do the same thing. If he can't, school sources say, the entire system will be taken over by the courts, where frustrated parents and students have asked judges to step in and force the District to act.
"I think things are coming to a head," said a school official privately. "The school system is finally realizing that the court is frustrated and wants to see action. This is the school system's last chance."
The school system transports almost 3,700 special education students to 232 D.C. centers and 82 facilities in Maryland and Virginia at a cost of about $10,000 per child each year.
For years, the system has been crippled by buses that run late, long ride times and safety shortcomings. The District has tried privatization and brought the system back in house again when that didn't work.
The court intervened again last summer.
U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman ordered the school system to hire a temporary transportation administrator to reform the system, an administrator who would be accountable to the court. In came Mr. Healey in October, with a finance expert and a technical writer in tow at a cost of almost $400,000.
Since then, Mr. Healey has been busy. He has mapped out routes and schools on 4-foot-high maps to try to figure out how to best get children to school on time. In his "war room," the Houston native hung a list of the goals the system must meet to extricate itself from court supervision. He brought in computer vendors to install and train employees on a $300,000 computerized routing system to more effectively plot school routes. He hopes this will decrease the 30 percent to 40 percent of buses that run late every day.
"We have a near-impossible task," he said. "We have to schedule hundreds of routes and deal with near-impossible routing schedules. And we still have to get these children to school on time in a time limit mandated by law."
Mr. Healey hopes to install a $500,000 global-positioning-satellite tracking system that will help administrators monitor the movement of buses, a system that could even be programmed to call parents when buses are late. He also plans to install a $750,000 radio system on buses that will allow drivers to communicate with the operations center and other drivers.
Mr. Healey also has plans to use incentives to hire more drivers and encourage those already hired to come to work almost one in five drivers are absent from work on any given day.
But Mr. Healey's initiatives won't change the problems at the core of system, school sources say, until the human resources, finance and procurement processes are revamped.
So far, that hasn't happened.
Mr. Healey says the human resources department, for example, often sends over unqualified candidates.
"Human resources sent me 51 applicants this week," he said. "[Transportation Director Al] Winder and I rejected every one of them. They are sending over people with substandard skills. That's what got us into this mess in the first place."
At a meeting last week with court-appointed special master Elise T. Baach, sources said, Interim Human Resources Director Dolores Hamilton suggested filling vacancies in transportation by recruiting employees from other District departments. Officials attending the meeting were incredulous: How would creating new vacancies around the District solve personnel problems?
Mr. Healey, frustrated and hoping to head off further action by the courts, met twice this week with Mayor Anthony A. William's staff to talk about hiring private recruiters and temporary employees in order to bypass Mrs. Hamilton's department. He has also requested the transportation division be made a separate agency.
Too little, too late, some say. This week, Mrs. Baach asked the court to impose a "corrective action plan" to force the school system to address "excessive absenteeism" of drivers and attendants and an abuse of leave time.
And while the department has struggled to find qualified workers, it also finds itself hamstrung in efforts to get rid of unqualified staff.
Transportation Director Winder first asked former superintendent Arlene Ackerman last May and schools Superintendent Paul Vance last fall to fire a number of underperforming employees many of whom received their positions through connections with top school personnel, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times.
Nothing happened.
In September, Mr. Winder requested an independent official to assess every position in transportation and force some staff members to reapply for their jobs.
"Some of my staff have complained that senior staff places persons in positions that were not advertised and at improper pay scales," he said in September. "Our problems are about a lot more than absenteeism. They are about people who aren't qualified in positions they aren't supposed to be in."
The transportation director added that the superintendent gave him a mandate to "do what needs to be done to make it work."
Until last week, though, little had changed.
Mr. Healey and Mr. Winder were told last week that three underperforming employees could be let go. They weren't told which ones.
Transportation department sources said it's difficult to get rid of employees who are either friends with or related to top officials in the school system, especially human resources officials.
"You have people getting hired that are sisters of employees that happen to be friendly with senior officials," said one school administrator who declined to be named. "It's been like that for a while. Unless they look hard at who makes the hiring decisions, I don't expect that to change."
Bus drivers have noticed, too. "You wonder why this person gets overtime while this other one doesn't," said one driver privately. "You would think because people are hired downtown, this wouldn't happen. It works the other way around."
Meanwhile, bus drivers, parents and service providers still complain that things haven't improved.
"The drivers are constantly being pulled to double up runs or do others that weren't assigned," said Robert Adam, a longtime driver. "We still have a problem getting paid accurately. But the channels we have to go through take too much time."
"This system is so bad that it can't be fixed like other systems by bringing in [computerized routing systems] and other stuff," said Sharon Raimo, executive director of St. Coletta school in Alexandria, Va. "We actually have people employed by the school system who don't know how to be nice to children. Mr. Healey is trying to change this, but he may not have the authority until he's the receiver."
Beth Goodman, attorney for the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, Nikita Pettis et al. v. District of Columbia, says that receivership is a real possibility.
"Even if David [Healey] has the full support of Dr. Vance it may not be sufficient to get the job done because others are in the way," she said. "If that is the case, we are going to be forced to go the receiver route."

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