The federally appointed administrator charged with assuring the District of Columbia Public Schools complies with a court order to fix bus service for students with special needs alleged that the safety of those students are in jeopardy just days before classes resume, a claim refuted by the school superintendent.
DCPS transports 3,500 students with special needs each day but has not managed its own operations for the past eight years, when widespread service problems resulted in the class-action suit Petties, et al. v. D.C. The suit alleged buses arriving late to school or not all. The settlement included the appointment of David Gilmore in June 2003 as an independent transportation administrator to manage and supervise all DCPS transportation operations. Gilmore had previously served as a court-appointed receiver of the District of Columbia Housing Authority.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman ordered in May 2010 that DCPS would resume management of its transportation services following a recommendation by Gilmore that the district was “consistently providing safe, timely and appropriate” school busing under a set of safeguards to assure the improved service would continue. At the time, Gilmore was also appointed supervising court master to oversee the transition as DCPS assumed day-to-day transportation operations, with a caveat being that Gilmore could at any time retake control of transportation if he determined that DCPS was in breach of performance standards.
In letter to Judge Friedman dated July 22 , Gilmore concluded that the school district was at the time incapable of improving service and was “jeopardizing the safety of special needs students.” Gilmore Kean LLC, founded by Gilmore in 2001, conducted a review of the transportation service following the 2010-2011 school year that uncovered faulty school bus brakes that were neither inspected in a timely manner nor properly reported to authorities. The review also noted “the chaotic condition of the Division’s record keeping system.”
“The fact that the Division’s operational problems have now resulted in student safety issues is of great concern to me,” Gilmore wrote.
But a spokesman for D.C. Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley said that the transportation department is now ensuring that all out-of-service school buses are grounded until they are inspected and brought back into compliance. The district affixes stickers with expiration dates to the front windows of all regulation school buses to delineate them from those that are out of service. Additionally, all drivers are trained not to operate non-compliant school buses until they are approved.
Gilmore also told Judge Friedman in July that his company conducted “extensive discussions” with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and transportation staff in the weeks following the review to determine what steps would be taken to rectify the problems. According to Gilmore, never once did the OSSE or transportation department offer a plan of action, or evidence of one.
“The efforts that it did undertake were substantially frustrated by the failure of Defendants’ budgetary and procurement processes to take timely action to allocate available funds to the purchase orders for the vendors who were prepared to inspect and repair the hundreds of non-compliant buses,” he explained.
However, Gilmore met with City Administrator Allen Lew on Aug. 4, and Gilmore said Lew assured him that DCPS was committed to bringing the transportation division into compliance with the court’s orders, and that Lew would personally assess the situation and decide how to proceed to overcome any ongoing obstacles. In an Aug. 9 follow-up letter to D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan and Mahaley, Gilmore wrote that, as a result of Lew’s pledge, he would not ask the court to return DCPS transportation services under his control and instead would allow the district to rectify the situation.
Marc Camposino, the communications director for Mahaley, pointed out that Gilmore’s review took place “at least two of months ago” and that ever since Mahaley has personally supervised the transportation department as it prepared for the beginning of classes on Aug. 22. Camposino said this “face-to-face, hands-on” oversight included physically moving her office and those of several senior-level staffers into the department of transportation. Mahaley also terminated three senior-level transportation officials she “inherited” from the previous administration run by Michelle Rhee, who left office at the beginning of this year after Mayor Adrian Fenty lost a re-election bid last fall, according to Camposino.
Mahaley also hired new Director of Transportation Ryan Solchenberger, who Camposino added was “by far the No. 1 candidate for the job” from a pool of hundreds of applicants. Solchenberger came from Chicago Public Schools, where he was the deputy budget director and, most recently, deputy chief operating officer. Prior, he was also chief of facilities implementation for the Chicago Transit Authority. Joining Solchenberger’s new staff is Deputy Director Dartanion Williams, Director of Operations Raeshawn Crosson-Settles and Safety and Risk Officer Tracey Langley.