Rhee Blasts Textbook Process For Letting Supplies Languish

The textbook department, responsible for keeping track of orders, is staffed by one person, Donald Winstead, who has no authority to enforce deadlines. (By Pouya Dianat -- The Washington Post)
By Theola Labbé and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 4, 2007

After saying this week that 50 percent of D.C. schools might not have all of their required textbooks when classes start Aug. 27, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee acknowledged yesterday that they could not pinpoint the extent of the problem.

Rhee led Fenty on a tour of the school system's book warehouse yesterday, lamenting how something so seemingly simple as getting textbooks to students is, for yet another year, a major issue. With less than a month before schools open, they said the system for purchasing and tracking textbooks is so disorganized that they will have to wait for an audit to determine how many students will not have books.

Rhee walked through the dimly lit three-story warehouse in Northeast Washington, pointing out pallet after pallet of shrink-wrapped textbook boxes. Those materials should be at schools instead of sitting in boxes, she said.

"You see there's dust on these, so they haven't been touched in a long time," Rhee said incredulously, pointing to a stack that towered above her head.

At the end of each academic year, students turn in textbooks to their teachers. If a book is lost or stolen, the school is responsible for ordering a replacement from the textbook office. About 1,000 replacement books are ordered annually, officials said.

This year, the majority of book orders -- more than 375,000 -- are science and social studies books that are connected to new learning standards. In the spring, then-Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said those books had been received by the school system, and yesterday Rhee agreed.

Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said the administration anticipated textbook problems but is awaiting details from a school consultant, McKinsey and Co., which are expected next week.

Meanwhile, D.C. Auditor Deborah A. Nichols, who expects next month to complete an investigation into textbook problems in years past, said she plans to expand the scope of the audit to include current problems.

"There's a schedule they're supposed to use to [ensure] that each step of the process is completed," Nichols said. "Our review shows they have not successfully met those milestones."

The textbook department, responsible for keeping track of orders, is staffed by one person, Donald Winstead, who has no authority to enforce whether individual schools meet deadlines for ordering replacement books.

The department's budget was once as much as $8 million, but it has been slashed over the years and was $1.5 million this fiscal year, said Winstead, who has served as the school system's textbook manager since 1989. That budget mostly covered contracts for shipping and trucking the books.

According to school system policy, individual principals are responsible for ordering copies of replacement books from the textbook office, which keeps a reserve inventory in its three-story warehouse. The books are supposed to arrive at schools in April or May, and school officials are to scan the bar codes on them into an electronic tracking system called Destiny.

But out of 141 schools, just 40 have designated a person to be trained and responsible for ordering textbooks, Winstead said, adding that he is not able to monitor which schools aren't following procedures.

Nathan Saunders, vice president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said there is such mistrust among employees of the central office that teachers often keep books rather than turn them in at the end of the year, which throws off the tracking process.

During yesterday's tour, Rhee pointed to stacks of binders and dusty boxes as examples of how the city's schools go without materials because they sit at the warehouse.

"Teachers go out and spend their own money on this stuff," said Rhee, opening up an unmarked box full of supplies, including glue and tape.

Rhee did not propose specific solutions yesterday to the problems she saw but said that "there must be better systems and processes in place" so that students have materials when they return to classrooms.

On the recommendation of McKinsey and Co., the consultant working on the school system audit, Winstead submitted a plan to increase his staff to five positions and is waiting to hear whether his budget for fiscal 2008 will grow to $8 million.

Schools also received a new ordering form this week, as recommended by consultants, to make replacement orders. Schools used to send individual e-mails, call or fax their orders to the textbook office.

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