- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

Some D.C. officials, parents and school-choice advocates have long been concerned about the high costs of special education and school officials’ failure to consistently estimate those costs. Special education is now “driving” the school system budget, is how one high-ranking D.C. official put it to us. Such a characterization is truly frightening, especially since there rarely are political consequences. Enter this significant mayoral election year and a recent report by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General that cites mismanagement, sloppy recordkeeping and lack of oversight as part and parcel of the problem.

The IG report, dated June 16, says D.C. Public Schools paid nearly $6.6 million in overtime in fiscal 2004 and more than $5.7 million in fiscal 2005. The overwhelming majority of those millions were paid to school employees who work in the transportation division, which oversees school bus drivers who, for the most part, only transport students enrolled in special education programs. In short, the school system’s overtime system runs on automatic pilot.

The chief objectives of the initial audit, which “was initiated due to concerns by an official from the Office of Pay and Retirement Systems,” were to determine the legitimacy of the overtime payments, and whether laws and regulations were followed properly. Specifically, auditors discovered that overtime payments were: 1) made for hours when basic pay should have been paid, 2) improperly authorized, 3) not authorized in advance, 4) improperly recorded and 5) issued in the absence of required request forms. Moreover, they found that more than half of the timesheet records for 2004 were missing from the storage room.

Auditors also investigated whether “all motor vehicle operators who received overtime were properly licensed to transport special needs children.” School bus drivers are required to have a valid commercial drivers license. Suffice it to say, auditors found that school transportation officials do not “monitor the status of the motor vehicle operators’ licenses in a thorough and systematic manner, and does not conduct current reviews of the status of their CDLs.”

Amid the millions lost in overtime because of mismanagement are the other special-education costs that continue to climb. As The Washington Post noted earlier this month, the legal fees of parents and students in special ed have increased substantially, from $2.2 million in 2000 to $17.6 million in 2005. At the same time, private tuition for special education students has increased from $70 million in 2000 to and estimated $118 million in 2005. During that same time, school officials always underbudgeted special-education tuition costs, and in the end had to take money from other programs to bridge the gap. It’s the type of fiscal chicanery that had D.C. swimming in red ink a decade ago.

School officials couldn’t offer a full accounting for the spending. “That’s the thing that’s so frustrating with special education: We’ve accepted dysfunctionality as a way of being,” the vice president of the school board, Carolyn N. Graham, told The Post. “We don’t know how much we’ve paid. We don’t know what we paid for.”

As forthcoming as those comments are, the overpayments for overtime, tuition and legal fees clearly are unconscionable. The mismanagement by school employees and the lack of oversight by the school board and the D.C. Council keep our children and their classrooms on the losing end.

What’s worse is school officials have no cogent plan in place to turn things around. Politicians can’t afford to leave voters empty-handed all summer long.

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