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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)

"This was just a quick and dirty . . . here are the numbers," said Anthony deGuzman, special assistant to the chancellor.

The team went back to the schools for more reliable data, he said. But records show the new results are still skewed, with hundreds of inconsistencies. One school with more than 400 students reported that it had a total of 306 textbooks for all subjects.

Other schools provided only partial counts. Of the system's 17 senior high schools, which typically have the biggest textbook needs, three submitted complete reports; four sent partial information; and 10 submitted nothing.

School district staffers say the survey was only one measure used to diagnose the book shortage. They also studied textbook request forms and other data.

"It's been a good barometer for us on which schools need the most support," deGuzman said. "I think we've come quite a long way."

But the lack of a clear, school-by-school count frustrates some parents. Iris Toyer, head of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said she contacted several schools after Rhee's announcement and could not find evidence of a sweeping shortage.

"In my most cynical perspective, it's good theater," she said. "You can create a problem and we solve it and we look good. But unless you can tell me specifically which schools are missing which books, I'm not sure that I can say you're doing a wonderful thing. . . . I'm just not that gullible."

Many large school systems have struggled to order and deliver textbooks, but in the District, the repeated inability to deliver books on time has come to symbolize wider failures. Skewed student enrollment projections, late book orders and the lack of a computer-tracking system have contributed to delays. So has the turnover of principals: There have been more than 140 changes in five years.

"There are not many places around like D.C. that has the same problem over and over again," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the D.C.-based Council of the Great City Schools.

The problems came to a head in 2005, when the school board ordered an audit that showed 14 percent of schools had not received all of their books months into the school year. In August 2006, Janey postponed for a year the purchase of science and social studies texts because he feared they wouldn't be delivered on time.

He made textbooks a top priority, installing an automated inventory tracking system for $3 million. Earlier this year, the school district ordered 375,000 science and social studies books at a cost of $7 million. Janey announced in May that the books were in schools even before students had left for summer vacation -- a rare sign of progress in a beleaguered school system.

"When they started delivering textbooks in May, I thought something must be wrong," said Marta Guzman, principal of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. "I was just so elated that they were coming through the door.

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