The cover of "The Little, Brown Handbook" clearly… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
Baltimore County schools spent $300,000 last fall to buy high school grammar books for elementary school educators, including some who teach music, art and gym, and administrators acknowledge that they failed to follow purchasing rules for the desk reference.
The district did not ask the school board to approve the purchase of The Little, Brown Handbook, as it was required to do, until after The Baltimore Sun had requested and been given a copy of purchase orders from October and January. At its meeting Tuesday night, the board approved the purchase, with one member abstaining.
Richard Gay, purchasing manager for the school system, said expenditures of $25,000 are usually brought before the school board. "We are very diligent in our process here. But sometimes we make a mistake," he said.
The high school version of the handbook arrived at elementary schools this fall with no explanation, educators said. In at least some schools, the books were put into teacher mailbox slots with no accompanying information as to why they were receiving the books or what they should do with them. School staff said at the board meeting Tuesday night that a superintendent's bulletin was distributed in November regarding the book.
Stephanie Foy, a fifth-grade teacher at Villa Cresta Elementary School in Parkville, said all the teachers in the school, including those in music, art and physical education, received a copy of the textbook.
"What curriculum have I been given that I needed this as a supplement? I don't honestly know what I was supposed to do with it," she said.
Foy said fifth-graders have a grammar textbook that is used in the teaching of language arts. In addition, she said, she has a teachers' manual that goes with that textbook.
If the school system was concerned that elementary school teachers didn't have enough knowledge of grammar, she said, there are a number of Web sites they could be directed to that might be cheaper than buying a textbook.
"I think the funds that were used for this probably could have been used for something much more beneficial," she said.
The purchase was made at the request of Barbara Dezmon, the assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance, according to school system records. The associate superintendent of curriculum would normally purchase textbooks, but that post is vacant. Dezmon, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday, said in an interview earlier this year that she had been helping out in the curriculum area, at Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's request.
Documents show the purchase of the 5,250 handbooks, at $53.97 apiece, was done in two parts. A requisition order dated Oct. 8 and signed by Dezmon was sent to the purchasing department and approved by Gay. The books, which cost $286,041, were to be delivered in the middle of October.
A second requisition for another 250 books at a cost of $14,841 was sent through in January.
Schools spokeswoman Phyllis Reese said the handbook was "purchased for elementary and secondary teachers in language arts to be used as a desktop reference for use in instruction, grammar, usage and mechanics skills."
By state law, purchases of $25,000 and over must be approved by a district's school board. Textbooks do not need to be bid for purchase if they are on an approved list. But the handbook was not on that list.
In addition, in Baltimore County, as in most school systems in Maryland, the purchase of new textbooks goes through an evaluation process. Any new textbook is first put through a public review, including being displayed in a central location for a month so that teachers and parents can offer comments. But that process does not appear to have been followed in this case.
School staff told the board Tuesday night that they didn't need to put the handbook through the public review by teachers and parents because it is not being used by students.
PTA and teacher union leaders criticized the school system for failing to involve teachers and parents enough in the selection of instruction materials on a number of contracts.
Board members questioned staff about how they had vetted the materials. Lawrence E. Schmidt, who abstained from the vote on the handbook, said the board wanted to "be satisfied that we are following policies."
Before the meeting, Gay said his office generally matches each requisition to see if there is a contract with the vendor already in place. If there isn't, then his office takes the matter before the board.
"This is a significant technical mistake on the part of the Office of Purchasing, but not at all an intentional one," Gay said.
Because of the mistake, he said, his office has changed its system, so that when a book is purchased, a copy of the board approval must accompany it.
In early February, the school board did approve the $2.7 million purchase of three grammar books that will be used by students in middle and high schools throughout the county.
The texts include a special printing of the grammar section of a 1983 book that is being done just for the county schools and will be called "BCPS English Language Skills." Two other books, "Writers Inc." and "Write for College," are part of the collection of grammar books.