IT'S AS BASIC as opening the schools on time. When classes start, there must -- not may, not should, but must -- be enough textbooks. A school system that cannot open on time and with textbooks, workbooks and other instructional materials for all core subjects should not try to pass itself off as a school system; it is a warehouse for students and a pretty poor one at that. That description, unfortunately, may apply to the District's school system if reports from D.C. Council members, teachers union leaders, students and principals are correct. Those sources told staff writers V. Dion Haynes and Yolanda Woodlee last week that many District public school students still lack books three months into the school year. A more cogent example of school system failure may be hard to find.

Most school systems do not have this problem, but sadly it is not new to the District. Every year the D.C. school system seems to have difficulty performing what should be a routine task. Even at this late date, the system's chief academic officer, Hilda L. Ortiz, cannot certify to the board of education, as mandated by a 2001 law, that books have been issued. Here it is December, and the school system's administration is still trying to verify that deliveries were completed. How complicated is that?

This situation calls into serious question the ability or capacity of school officials to handle even more challenging tasks, such as raising academic achievement and managing a proposed school modernization program costing hundreds of millions of dollars. D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols has promised to investigate the alleged shortages. But what about those responsible for school governance, namely Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and the Board of Education? What have they been doing? On Friday, school board member Tommy Wells (District 3) told us that he was angry about the reported lack of textbooks, given that the superintendent and his staff had reassured the board that there was no systemic problem. "What concerns me," he said, "is either the lack of candor or their not knowing the extent of the problem." Mr. Wells said, "Dr. Janey will need to conduct a school by-classroom-by-subject inventory for us."

That should have been done weeks ago. If officials can't get this right, what hope is there for students in D.C. public schools?