Fairfax To Probe Troubled Bus-Privatization Experiment

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Three months after hiring a private company to maintain their school buses, officials in Fairfax County, Va., have launched an investigation to determine why there are not enough buses on the road.

A sharply divided county board of supervisors voted last week to have a county auditor find out why Johnson Controls World Services Inc. has failed to keep enough buses in service, causing delays in student transportation.

The decision to investigate came after the board of supervisors' Republican majority, which has supported the privatization effort, beat back a push by Democratic members to immediately sever the county's contract with the company.

One Republican supervisor, Ernest J. Berger, helped buy time for the contract by asserting that county employees had sabotaged Johnson Controls' efforts. He said employees created maintenance backlogs by sending many more school buses to the garage after the company took over.

"There is an organized attempt to prevent Johnson Controls from meeting the terms of their contract,'' Mr. Berger said last week in an interview.

He charged that county employees, who have resisted privatization, have inspected the buses more vigorously and increased the workload on the garage by 102 percent in an effort "contrived to alarm the parents and alarm the public.''

But a private consultant's report commissioned by the county executive, William J. Leidinger, and submitted to the supervisors last week concluded that Johnson Controls is at fault.

"They flat-out have not performed their contract,'' said Gerald W. Hyland, a Democratic supervisor. He called Mr. Berger's allegations of a conspiracy against Johnson Controls "absolute poppycock.''

Citing the report's findings and observing that many parents are frustrated and angry, Sharon Bulova, a Democratic supervisor, told board members at last week's meeting, "I think it is very important that we cut our losses.''

The board is expected to vote on the contract on June 27, giving the county auditor, who was appointed last week, just three weeks to finish his work.

Officials of Johnson Controls last week said they welcomed the county investigation and would fight to keep the contract.

Political Capital Staked

In the Fairfax County school system, the nation's 11th largest with more than 130,000 students, an estimated 98,000 students are transported every school day by a fleet of about 1,300 buses operated by the county government.

Since being elected in 1991, the board of supervisors' narrow Republican majority has pledged to save tax dollars by contracting out a variety of county services. The supervisors' first major attempt at privatization was the contract with Johnson Controls to operate one of the county's three garages.

The county was projected to pay about $14 million over three years to run the garage, which services about 28 percent of the county's vehicles and about half of the county's school buses. The three-year contract with Johnson Controls provides that the company will receive $11 million over three years but faces fines if, on any given day, more than 5 percent of the buses it services are off the road.

Since the company took over the garage on March 1, it has seldom been able to keep the minimum number of buses on the road, and at times more than a third of the buses have been out of service, forcing the county to borrow buses from a neighboring district.

A Question of Control

On one day last month, 32 drivers did not get their regularly assigned buses from the facility, and hundreds of children were late to class. Superintendent of Schools Robert R. Spillane sent a letter to the county executive calling for "strong action'' and summoning him before the school board.

"Youngsters are arriving late to school, and parents are complaining vehemently--rightfully so,'' Mr. Spillane said. "We now have what I consider a problem out of control.''

Michael Williams, a spokesman for Johnson Controls World Services, maintained in an interview last week that most of the problems encountered by the company were due to circumstances "within the control of the county.''

Mr. Williams said that the company, a Cape Canaveral, Fla.-based division of Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, has a "sterling reputation'' and has encountered no similar problems with its other contracts, which include other school districts and large airports.

Student transportation has become one of the the most heavily privatized areas of school district operations nationwide.

Vol. 13, Issue 38

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