- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

A federal judge has ordered the city's public-school system to develop a plan to address bus-driver absenteeism by the end of the month.

The court order reflects a growing impatience among judges, plaintiffs' attorneys and a court-mandated administrator embroiled since August in a class-action lawsuit against the public schools' transportation department, school sources said.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman last week ordered the school system to develop a "corrective-action plan" by March 30 that will address excessive absenteeism of drivers and attendants.

The action plan also must address the use of personal leave by employees, a practice that private auditors say has been abused frequently.

"The school system just doesn't get it," one school source said on the condition of anonymity. "It has been new plan after new plan, new official after new official and they still spend $10,000 per student to get children to school late. I think the newest order reflects that sentiment."

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. For years, the system has been plagued by lateness, long ride times and safety issues.

Many of the District's special-education students do not arrive at school on time despite almost $40 million spent by the school system to ensure they do so.

In a related matter, plaintiffs' attorneys on Monday asked the court to require the school system to provide information on payments to private schools outside the District to ensure that payments are in full and on time.

School officials "knowingly and consistently fail to follow procedures and make payments as ordered by this Court, despite a demonstrated ability to do so," said plaintiffs in the court filing. "[They] were in substantial compliance with the Court's Orders regarding payment for a significant period of time; however … during the summer and fall of 2000, [their] performance in this area had again deteriorated."

According to documents, only 7 percent of invoices to be paid in December were paid on time and fewer than 10 percent were paid at all. By last month, most were paid, but some were delinquent by as much as three months.

The overdue payments pose a threat to special-education placements and related services for hundreds of students, according to court documents.

Transportation Administrator David Healey, who answers to the court, said his department is working almost "around the clock" to meet the requirements of the lawsuit and get children to school on time.

Mr. Healey, who took charge of the department five months ago, said he plans to hire temporary employees and work with the new human resources director to fill vacancies.

As for billing problems, he said it is possible the school system may have to contract out billing services.

"[Receivership] is always a possibility, but it is in everyone's best interest to work together to get kids to school on time and make every effort to meet the objectives of the … case," he said.


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