Not on the Same Page Over Textbook Needs

Donald B. Winstead, who manages the systems' textbook distribution with the help of one staffer, says he doesn't think there's a widespread shortage.
Donald B. Winstead, who manages the systems' textbook distribution with the help of one staffer, says he doesn't think there's a widespread shortage. (Pouya Dianat -- The Washington Post)
By Debbie Cenziper and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 24, 2007

The teams were dispatched in late July with a simple charge: tracking textbook shortages in D.C. public schools.

On orders from Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, 30 staffers fanned out across the school system to survey principals about the books they have and need -- a push that for the first time would give school officials a clear understanding of a problem that's burdened the system for years.

But flawed data and incomplete responses from two-thirds of the schools have tainted the count, an examination of school records shows, and four days before school starts, Rhee has yet to say how many books are missing.

The lack of information has bred confusion even as Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) stage a string of public appearances stressing the systemic failures they inherited and their campaign to fix them. At the same time, long-standing weaknesses in communication and computer tracking make it impossible to know whether the textbook problem has been solved -- or even if there's a problem at all.

Despite the lack of precise numbers, the chancellor has announced that more than half of the schools were missing required books, making the shortage one of the highest-profile issues for her administration. Yet principals interviewed by The Post in recent weeks -- more than 30, or roughly one-fifth of the total -- said they have what they need to open Monday.

Although some were waiting for a handful of books, often extra copies, many principals called this the smoothest delivery in years. Nearly 400,000 new textbooks were delivered in May -- weeks early -- after Clifford B. Janey overhauled the way the system orders books when he was superintendent.

"We got them so early this year, we were a little mind-blown," said Principal Veda Usilton at Garnet-Patterson Middle School.

Principal Shirley Jones of Meyer Elementary School said, "This has been the best year."

When Rhee announced late last month that half of the schools were without the required books, she based that figure not on a count of missing texts but on a single, yes-or-no question posed to principals: Did you receive all of the newly adopted textbooks you needed?

Schools were included on Rhee's list even if they were missing only a handful of books.

"It is a significant issue," she said. "When you have books in the system but not getting to the right places, then that could potentially impact whether or not students and teachers are starting with the books they need."

When Rhee sent teams into schools to get a count of books, there was more confusion. Principals were asked to detail their book needs by subject and grade level. But some principals misunderstood the questionnaire and reported inaccurate numbers. Others didn't respond at all.

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