Schools plan to tackle lack of textbooks Parham specifies item in budget to ensure funding

'I had heard enough'

Recent audit shows $6 million needed to upgrade system

April 13, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Carol S. Parham has taken the first steps toward what the Anne Arundel County schools superintendent hopes will be a solution to a critical shortage of up-to-date textbooks in decent condition, a problem parents and school board members have been griping about for years.

"I had heard enough," Parham said last week. "At some point you simply have to take some steps. Either we continue wringing our hands, or we do something about it."

A recent audit confirmed the scope of the problem. It would take $6 million, the audit showed, to update books for the system's 73,000 students. Double that amount would be needed to buy enough so that each child could take home books in every subject. And nobody knows what it would cost annually to replace books on the five- to seven-year cycle that educators recommend.

Parents have long complained that having students read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" silently in class is a waste of time when it could be done at home if copies were available. They also say that without textbooks at home, they cannot help with homework, or help their children catch up when they are out sick.

Some science books are so outdated they barely mention AIDS and other retroviruses; some government texts end with Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980. Duct tape holds the covers on many foreign language books; and math books by the dozen are missing pages. Dictionaries and spelling texts, which have a low replacement priority because spelling doesn't change, often are the most battered.

Parham's plan falls short of providing $6 million immediately.

In the fiscal 1997-1998 budget, she has set up a nearly $3 million textbook-only line item, which will guarantee that money set aside for books is spent on books, she said.

"This way we would know right up front what is going for textbooks," said Gregory Nourse, budget director.

Parham plans to set guidelines by June 1 for how much money each school must spend on books and to circulate by July 1 a list of approved texts from which teachers can select. Also by July 1, Parham plans to have completed a review of the way texts are inventoried, bought and distributed.

Under the existing budgeting system, all instructional material expenditures are lumped together, so accurate textbook spending cannot be calculated quickly. Worse, the instructional

materials line has been routinely raided to pay utility bills, salaries, photocopier costs or bills for equipment.

A comprehensive inventory would help with management of books, Parham said. If each grade and subject used a small number of mostly the same titles, instead of every teacher picking different books, then schools would have the flexibility to borrow from each other and students transferring from one school to another would have fewer transition problems. Currently, borrowing is informal.

The textbook inventory says little beyond what books the school system has and where they are likely to be found. The age and condition of books are not listed.

Spending declined

Once unheard of, it is now commonplace for PTAs to buy thousands of dollars worth of textbooks.

A Sun analysis of spending on books and materials shows that the level of textbook spending per student in the past decade peaked in the 1986-1987 school year in Anne Arundel County.

Textbook spending per pupil was $21.21 in 1986-1987 when enrollment was 64,123 students. It dipped to $11.42 in the 1991-1992 school year, then began climbing, reaching $18.19 per student for 1995-1996, the last school year for which figures are available. There were 71,824 students that year.

The county's textbook problems are not unique.

For example, Howard County started a comprehensive textbook inventory last fall in response to nearly identical problems. Howard's school board voted to increase textbook spending next year by 50 percent and to go on an eight-year book replacement cycle.

It also is not a new problem. One principal recalls teaching in 1973, four years after astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, from a textbook that predicted man would go to the moon someday.

Deciding vote

The Anne Arundel school board has voted to set aside nearly $3 million for textbooks for next year. The County Council will vote next month whether to approve the school budget, including the money for books.

The request from the school board is high. For the past decade PTC textbook expenditure has held steady at $1 million to $1.5 million a year. Over the same 10 years, textbooks prices doubled and tripled. A basic fifth-grade social studies text is about $40, and an advanced placement chemistry text costs about $120.

Parham's plan for better control over book purchases could earn the district some bulk-order discounts and some breaks from publishers who award big book orders with savings on shipping costs, officials said.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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