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Maintenance, leasing issues lead to special education bus snafus

In the 2010-2011 handbook for parents and guardians of special education students, OSSE director of student transportation Michael Kovalcik wrote that an "improved preventive maintenance program ensures that your children will be riding in the safest, best maintained fleet ever operated by the OSSE Division of Transportation."

But Kovalcik's message on Wednesday was not so encouraging. He said an "unprecedented" number of buses requiring summer maintenance, combined with leased replacement buses that fell through a few weeks before the beginning of the school year, has triggered the flurry of late--or non-existent--pick ups and drop offs for special ed kids. Kovalcik did not respond to a follow up e-mail asking when and how the situation might get fixed.

On Tuesday the Children's Law Center (CLC) sent a letter to District officials expressing alarm about the deterioration of bus service for the city's 4,000 special needs children to public and private schools across the region. CLC executive director Judith Sandalow described a series of incidents involving emotionally disturbed or medically fragile children who were forced to spend two and three hours on buses, or who were not picked up at all for days at a time. Service also appears to have suffered because DCPS was not providing accurate or timely student information for OSSE's data base.

Responsibility for special ed bus service, under federal court supervision for much of the last decade, has been gradually transitioning to OSSE. An order signed by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman last May opened the door to OSSE taking full control by Oct. 1. That has now been pushed back until at least Dec. 1.

David Gilmore, Friedman's transportation master, acknowledged Wednesday that there have been "some significant operational problems with school bus transportation since the opening of school," and that he has asked for a full report from Kovalcik. He said he has also brought in an outside expert to assess OSSE's problems. Sometime before Dec. 1, Gilmore said, he will make a recommendation to the court.

He added that the opening of the school year is "always hellacious," marked by challenges in sorting out new students and bus routes. Last year, a new computerized routing system actually ended up deleting student names from routes. Gilmore said the problems were resolved, but that the current issues are more serious than the usual early glitches.

"Service is improving, but at a slower rate than is acceptable," Gilmore said.

Marrianne McMullen, chief of staff the DCPS Office of Family and Public Engagement, said it took extra steps this year to avoid transportation snags. She said the school system contracted with a private transportation company to provide temporary, on-demand service during the first three weeks of school to students who had late changes made to their transportation needs.

She also said it was difficult to address the specific examples cited by Sandalow without knowing the students involved (Sandalow didn't include the names). But she said any parent using the District's Parent Call Center would have received the temporary service. The only exceptions would have been if the student's IEP said he or she was ineligible for transportation, or that the student was not enrolled in the correct school.

McMullen said the examples cited in yesterday's posting "do not accurately reflect the quality of the services provided."

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By Bill Turque  | September 23, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
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For three weeks the bus was late in the morning and afternoon. My son would be late 1 hour or more getting to school. Some times he would be on the bus 3 plus hours coming home. His pants would be soak and wet. I've made several complaints about this issue and on couple times the investigator wouldn't return my calls. As a mother this is really upsetting to sit and wonder what time or if your child is going to come home or not. Animals are getting treated better than these kids. If they are showing up at my house 3 hours late and I look on the bus and there are about 4 to 5 other kids on the bus and I wonder what time are they getting home. Mcmullen said that the first article do not accurately reflect the quality of service profided. No because its "worst".

Posted by: valo1 | September 28, 2010 11:48 PM | Report abuse

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