ANNAPOLIS – Nearly one-fourth of schools in Prince George’s County reported a “critical” shortage of textbooks in a recent school administration survey of principals.
The findings have sparked a debate over the future of school-based management and brought charges from county officials that principals and the school system are using textbook money for other purposes.
“They have been dipping into the money for books and buying other things,” Prince George’s County Council member Isaac Gourdine said last week. “The central administration is not monitoring them.”
The survey, released earlier this month, was requested by Prince George’s County school board member Marilynn Bland, after she heard reports of shortages.
In the survey, principals from 44 of the district’s 182 schools said they faced “critical” textbook shortages. By critical, they meant they could not adhere to a policy requiring “appropriate textbooks and/or materials of instruction to support student learning at every grade level.”
“There is a shortage of books in the classrooms throughout the district, not just in one school,” Bland said.
While some school officials downplayed the severity of the problem, at least one parent said she has noticed a shortage.
Pamela Thomas, whose boys are in the first and second grades at Waldon Woods Elementary in Clinton, said her first grader does not have a reading book to take home.
“Basically, everything he brings home comes on ditto sheets. There are no books,” Thomas said, noting that the students do have reading books to use while in class.
“I find that hypocritical because we’re told that as parents we’re the second team,” she added. “The school has them during the day and we’re supposed to reinforce it at night.”
The textbook report blamed shortages on unanticipated increases in school enrollment and shifts in student course selection, curriculum changes and the disappearance of books from a few schools over the summer.
Prince George’s County School Superintendent Jerome Clark said he has included an extra $1 million in his proposed budget for the next school year to help deal with the problem.
That money will not be parceled out to individual schools but will be kept in the central office to make sure it is spent on textbooks, he said.
Clark said that subtle adjustments to the district’s school- based management policy, which vests schools with the authority to spend their allocated funds however they see fit, might be necessary.
“Right now, it’s pretty much the schools making their own decisions,” Clark said of the current school-based set-up.
He also said the pot of money individual schools receive has been limited by the system’s attempt to maintain a competitive salary structure.
“Sometimes you ask if you should give people textbooks or give people salaries,” he said. “We’ve tried hard to keep salaries paramount, though ours are still less than surrounding districts.”
Clark said certain “protocols” could be established to ensure that schools spend minimum amounts on books. He disagreed with Bland’s proposal to take textbook-buying decisions out of the hands of individual schools.
Bland’s motion to that effect was tabled at Thursday’s board meeting. Board members said they want to wait until Clark delivers a report on the school-based textbook policy in May.
The textbook shortage came to light in November, when the county council rejected a school board request to move just over $1 million out of the “textbook and instructional supplies” category of the budget.
In rejecting the request, council members noted that despite a rumored textbook shortage, the schools had only spent $1.9 million on new books, though the central office had estimated that $4.5 million of the school-based budgets would go to books.
There is disagreement among school officials about the severity of the problem.
“In my opinion, if you have any children who are going to school every day without textbooks, it’s a severe problem,” Bland said.
But Janette Bell, president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association, said she didn’t believe the textbook shortage was dire.
“We have not gotten a lot of calls from our members indicating that they don’t have textbooks,” said the teachers union president.
Fairmont Heights High School was on the “critical” list. But Eric Lyles, dean of academic and student affairs there, said the school recently got a shipment of books that eased its shortage.
And Ardmore Elementary School Principal Gary Bartee, whose Landover school is on the critical list, said schools are hard- pressed to stretch their textbook budgets to meet the continuous changes in curricula.
“It’s a limited budget but you just make a decision,” he said. “It doesn’t allow you to do everything at once.”
While he listed his school’s needs as “critical,” Bartee acknowledged that his assessment was partially motivated by the possibility that it could bring more funding.
“Once that (survey) came out, I thought there was some extra money available. I figured I’d throw my hat in the ring,” he said.
“Our needs were not so great that a child was going without a reading book,” Bartee added.