The District of Columbia filed a motion (PDF) last night in Washington federal court to end court orders governing the city's handling of transportation for students with special needs. The move is part of ongoing efforts to close class actions filed against D.C. beginning in the 1970s over its failure to provide basic social services.
The case, Petties v. D.C., was filed in 1995 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accusing city officials of mismanaging the transportation system for special needs students. In yesterday's motion, the city proffered that it had met the requirements for exiting court oversight.
Petties is one of six remaining class actions involving the city's ability to care for some its most vulnerable residents; in each of the cases, the city was placed under court oversight through consent decrees. D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan has made ending these cases a priority, both because he thinks the city has made the necessary reforms and because they pose a tremendous financial burden. In yesterday's filing, his office estimated that the city has spent $16 million on the Petties case alone.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office, Ted Gest, declined to comment, saying his office wanted to "let the filing speak for itself."
A lead counsel for the plaintiffs in Petties, Bradford Johnson of Washington's Johnson Law Group International, said he and the other plaintiffs' counsel are still reviewing the filing to decide on their next steps. He noted that even if the city does regain full control of managing its transportation system, court supervision won't fully end until the case is dismissed, which doesn't automatically happen if the motion is granted.
"We're fully supportive of the city getting out of the litigation, we just want to make sure the institutional capacity and the governance climate in the district will support continued good performance," Johnson said.
He noted, for instance, that while the city offered data proving they provided on-time transportation services for the second half of the school year, data from the beginning of the school year – the most challenging time for the system, Johnson said – was "alarming." The city acknowledged in yesterday's filing that there were "a number of challenges" at the beginning of the year, but that the school opening in August 2011 "exceeded all expectations" in spite of the earthquake and a major storm that hit the region that month.
Nathan's predecessors have pushed to end consent decrees for years, but he's had a recent run of success. In February, he secured a settlement with plaintiffs in a class action surrounding the city's handling of its mental health system, known as the Dixon case. Last July, the city exited part of a case known as Blackman/Jones, a 1997 class action that had to do with the city's handling of due process complaints in special education cases.
In yesterday's motion, the city pushed for a court hearing as soon as possible in the hopes of ending oversight before the beginning of the next school year.
"[T]here is no valid reason to perpetuate these costs in these times of fiscal austerity," the city argued in its brief. "The District should be relieved of this unduly, expensive, and now unnecessary exercise so it can better spend its funds on other governmental matters which require these resources."