Many Textbooks Left Behind
WITH LESS than three weeks before opening day, more than half of District public schools still don't have the textbooks they need. Some books have been shipped to the wrong schools. Others lie unopened in the District's warehouse, which is piled high with dusty boxes of hardcovers, workbooks and other school supplies.
This is nothing new, of course. In 2005, some District schools still hadn't received the textbooks they needed well into December. But given former superintendent Clifford B. Janey's promises of a "new day" for textbook distribution, this year's glitches are beyond unacceptable.
According to school district spokeswoman Mafara Hobson, all book requests are supposed to be sent to the school system's textbook department, which has books delivered to the warehouse, which is then responsible for distributing the books to schools. While schools are supposed to submit their requests for replacement textbooks in the spring, according to textbook manager Donald Winstead, the requests are frequently late. Some schools are still putting together supply orders. Worse, there is no coherent, all-encompassing book-tracking system, so much of the inventory at the warehouse is a mystery.
Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee says her first priority, before revamping the system, is getting schools ready in three weeks. A task force is taking inventory at the warehouse and traveling from school to school making sure they have what teachers have requested.
As for the long term, Ms. Rhee rightly says that before more money is thrown at the textbook department, where Mr. Winstead has requested a higher budget, an "articulated process" needs to be put in place for ordering, tracking and delivering books. One possibility would be to eliminate the warehouse system entirely, as other school districts have done. This would mean asking publishers to ship directly to schools and having schools coordinate transfers of excess stock among themselves rather than shipping it back to a warehouse intermediary. A study by the Office of the D.C. Auditor that is expected to be finished next month and recommendations from consultant McKinsey and Co. may help focus the discussion.
The visit by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the chancellor to the warehouse last week was a useful gesture. As Mr. Winstead remembers it, that was the first time since he became the school system's textbook manager in 1989 that a D.C. mayor and a head of the school system had visited the warehouse; seen the holes in the roof, the broken lights and the dusty piles of unopened boxes; and gotten firsthand knowledge of the work they had cut out for them.