Service for special-needs students improved

City, state both take credit for transportation success

September 01, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials released figures yesterday showing improvements in transporting students with disabilities to school on the first day of the new academic year.

However, as the state prepares to assume control over the city school system's transportation department, just who is responsible for those improvements was a matter of dispute.

City school officials say they have worked diligently for a year to avoid a repeat of last year's opening day of school, when drivers for more than 50 bus routes didn't show up and 721 emergency taxis were sent to pick up special-education students.

On the first day of school Monday, drivers for only two routes didn't show, and 65 taxis were dispatched.

"It's still high," said the school system's chief operating officer, Eric T. Letsinger, who oversees the transportation department. "We're far from perfect, but our improvement is dramatic."

State officials say they were "instrumental" in the improvement, but city officials say they did it mostly on their own.

The school system provides transportation to 4,263 of its approximately 15,000 special-education students, those whose disabilities prevent them from being able to walk or take public transportation.

Because problems bringing those children to and from school have been so severe in the past, transportation is one of eight city school system departments that is to be overseen by state managers under the terms of a court order issued last month.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who presides over a 21-year-old special-education lawsuit that names the city and state as defendants, issued the order Aug. 12.

It came in response to the school system's widespread failure to provide services to students with disabilities. Sometimes the students were not served because transportation problems prevented them from getting to school.

Letsinger outlined a host of reforms that the school system has initiated over the past year. He said schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland made a commitment to make transportation better this year after such a rocky start last school year.

Copeland hired a new transportation director, Donald Swift, about the time school was starting last year. She convened work teams from several school system departments that have been meeting weekly for the past year to figure out how to transport students smoothly.

School system employees replaced a paper system with an electronic one to track transportation requests and bus routes, said Letsinger, who came to the school system in May from the city housing department.

When officials renegotiated contracts with bus companies this spring, they included fines for not showing up and other poor performance.

The school system enlisted the city's 311 operators to call 3,200 students to check their addresses, verifying about 60 percent of them, Letsinger said.

For the remaining 40 percent, he enlisted the help of the housing department's community outreach division, whose staff "walked the streets and knocked on doors to confirm as many addresses as possible," he said.

The state's major intervention in the city schools' transportation department has not yet begun. On Tuesday, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick named Glenn J. Johnson, the longtime transportation director in Howard County, to manage the department.

Although Johnson does not start his new job until next week, state school officials said he and Grasmick played a role in the improvements. The state also said yesterday that they've been helping the school system's transportation department all summer, particularly in the three weeks since Garbis' order. William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the department's assistance "was instrumental in turning this around."

Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education, said school system officials have acknowledged in court papers the support the state has provided them. "They've taken advantage of the assistance we have to offer," she said.

Janice Johnson Hunter, a lawyer who represents special education students in the lawsuit, said her office has received calls this week from parents whose children had trouble with transportation. Nevertheless, she said she was "not surprised" to hear things are getting better.

"I think Mr. Swift [the transportation director] has made some real strides over the past year," she said.

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