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.
"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.
But late last month, after just weeks on the job, Rhee announced that half of the schools did not have all their required books. A few days later, she toured the book warehouse alongside the mayor, pointing to pallets crammed with textbooks.
"You see there's dust on these, so they haven't been touched in a long time," she said.
Among other things, Rhee found stacks of novels that had not been delivered to high schools.
Other problems linger.
The automated tracking system introduced by Janey has not provided a comprehensive count because not all principals have entered their books into the system, school district officials said.
Principals also have missed deadlines: A review of roughly 150 textbook request forms, mostly for replacement books, showed that none was submitted by the April 16 deadline for the upcoming year. Principals also were supposed to alert the system to book shortfalls by June, but textbook manager Donald Winstead said just 40 schools met that deadline.
"Principals have not responded in a timely way," he said, adding that orders continue to come.
Winstead also acknowledges that the warehouse is unorganized -- he shares space with heaps of old chairs, desks and other supplies, as well as dozens of shelves crammed with student records. He doesn't have the right forklift to properly stock books, and one of two elevators is often broken, so he can't move books quickly. He has a staff of one and says he needs more help.
But Winstead said he doesn't think the system is facing a widespread book shortage.
This week, Rhee reported that the warehouse received orders between mid-July and mid-August for 69,000 textbooks and other materials, with about 22,000 still to be distributed.
Winstead, who oversees the requests, said he was not involved in calculating that figure. "I don't know where she got that number from."
Staff writers Theola Labbï¿½, Sue Anne Pressley Montes and Sylvia Moreno contributed to this report.