Truth-tellers, liars and equivocators

For every child, a BMW: Patrick Mara on special education transportation spending

January 7, 2011 - 12:25 PM
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The District is known for having a healthy safety net, but it's generally not in the business of providing cars to residents. So when Patrick Mara, the Ward 1 member of the State Board of Education, said that the District was spending enough cash on transporting special education students to buy each one of them a luxury automobile, it caught our eye.

"It's about $90 million of cost for transporting these students, and in fact, you could basically buy every student taking advantage of that transportation a BMW every year with what we currently pay," Mara said during an appearance earlier this week on TBD's NewsTalk.

Is this alarming statement accurate?

According to data provided by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, yes.

In fiscal year 2010, which ended Sept. 30, D.C. spent $93,286,476 on transportation for 3,682 special education students, or $25,335 per student.

Is that enough to prove Mara's statement true? We'll get to the luxury cars, but first, some background.

As the District struggles to get its special education system out from under federal oversight, it is spending a lot of money transporting special education students to places that can meet their educational needs. If their local school isn't up to snuff, these students can enroll at a public or charter school elsewhere in D.C. If no school in D.C. works, they can go to private schools and the District will pick up the cost.

About one-in-five D.C. special education students fall into this category. Most of them go to private schools in the Washington area, but some are as far away as Colorado. Cost-cutters have long targeted this program as a place where the District can find budgetary savings. (Mayor Vince Gray frequently mentioned it when he was running for office.)

Why so expensive? Kelly Brinkley, the COO of the Office of State Superintendent for Education, said a federal court order and individual education plans for each student complicates matters far beyond your standard ride to school. Some students have nurses or attendants that need to be transported. Students can be transported to Baltimore or downstate Virginia, and the city has a limited time to get them there. So even if multiple students go to one school, if a bus can't pick all of them up and get them in a certain time frame, multiple buses might be used. All these complexities add up pretty quickly.

"You aren't transporting regular students," Brinkley said. "Because we do transport so many kids outside of the city, those costs really add up."

Brinkley said the costs should decrease when D.C. gets out of the federal court order, which will allow them to simplify the transportation process.

So, now to the cars. Is Mara right in his assertion that D.C. might as well just hand out luxury cars?

According to the Kelly Blue Book, the cheapest BMW is a 2011 BMW 1 Series 2-door 128i Coupe, which costs $29,424. That leaves us about four grand short per child.

Is there any luxury vehicle this could buy for every D.C. special education student? Lexuses were out of the question, as were Mercedes-Benzes. But Ford, Mitsubishi, Dodge and Chevy all had multiple models within the price range.

A few other data points on what you could get, car-wise, for $93 million:

  • 3,034 2010 Hummer H3Ts
  • 11,631 2003 Toyota Corollas in good condition (The official car of The Facts Machine)
  • 28,225 2000 Volkswagen Beetles in good condition
  • 377 2011 Rolls Royce Ghosts

The District would come up a little short in its quest to buy every special education student a BMW, but Mara did add the qualifier "basically," so he deserves some slack. After all, the District could definitely buy every student a nice car, so he's Mostly On Point.

Mostly on point

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