Stacked Up

Do Philly students have the books they need?

When schools come up short, who's responsible?


By Meredith Broussard

In order to understand a small thing like textbooks inside a large bureaucracy like the School District of Philadelphia, it helps to understand who's responsible for what inside the organization. In connection with Stacked Up, a new tool for looking at books in Philly schools, we've summarized what we know about who is accountable for books in the District as of August 2013.

Who’s responsible for making sure students have enough books in each individual school?
Donna M. Runner, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, explained: "Principals are responsible for purchasing what they need from their student allocations. The principal is ultimately responsible to report out what they have in their building."

Who do the principals report to?
Donna Runner: "In the current hierarchy, there are assistant superintendents who oversee a number of schools. The principals are held accountable to those superintendents. Currently, the assistant superintendents oversee schools all over the city."
These assistant superintendents, according to District spokeswoman Deirdre Darragh, are: Donna Runner, Dion Betts, Kenneth Cherry, Dennis Creedon (interim), Andrea Coleman-Hill, Lissa Johnson, Karen Kolsky, Cassandra Ruffin (interim), and Benjamin Wright.

What is the District's official position on textbook inventory?
If a teacher or community member has a complaint about missing instructional materials, they should get in touch with the school's principal, according to District spokesperson Fernando Gallard. "The principal is the number one contact," he said. "If they feel the principal is not receptive, or for some reason makes them feel apprehensive, they can go to the assistant superintendent. If they don’t know who their assistant superintendent is, they can contact the School District of Philadelphia at 215-400-4000 and they will let them know who they are. Also, there is the Inspector General’s Office that they can contact the inspector general’s office to lodge a complaint about retaliation from principals or any administrator."

We get it: The District says that the buck stops with each principal. Is each principal given enough money to buy all the new books he needs for his students?
It's hard to tell. "You can never have enough textbooks," said Sayre High School Principal Charles Ireland. The District makes a great deal of budget information available on its website, but the per-school budgets are estimated, rather than actual, budgets. For example, as of May 24, 2012, Academy at Palumbo planned to spend $105,210 on books and instructional aids for the 2012-2013 school year. Did that happen? Probably. We don't know. As of this moment, there is no easy, transparent way for the public to see what principals actually spent on books at each school or what they bought. That will probably change in the future.

What else may be going on in the schools to get in the way of resolving book issues once and for all?
Michael Masch, the vice president of finance and chief financial officer at Manhattan College and the former chief financial officer of the School District of Philadelphia, said funding cuts have meant fewer administrative staff to take care of “details.” These details matter more than anyone imagines. “One of the things the District found when I was there: principals weren’t good at managing cash accounts or student accounts. They needed support in performing administrative functions because they were understaffed,” said Masch. “If the principal doesn’t meet with every parent, deal with every crisis, they get criticized. If they don’t do the invisible stuff, like the paperwork, they’re not going to read about it in the newspaper. So they triage.”

Rebecca Dhondt, the parent of a second grader and a fourth grader at Jenks, said: "They are very possessive of their textbooks. My daughter is not allowed to bring her textbook home because they don’t want it to get lost." For the past two years, she has surveyed teachers to find out what's on their wish lists (mostly trade books and basic school supplies), and then raised funds and solicited donations from the community. "When I first did it last year, the principal said, ‘oh, we have some of that stuff,’" said Dhondt. "There's not enough support to connect the supplies in the supply closets or the libraries, with the teachers in the classroom. They need to have enough money to connect the dots."

Donna Cooper, the executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a founder of Good Schools Pennsylvania, explained that SDP's textbook issues are complex. "There is a set of logistical issues in a district this big that most districts in the U.S. don't face," she said. "Everything isn't what it appears. What appears to be a downtown problem may actually be a management problem." Philly principals manage a perpetually changing student population. One teacher noted that when she taught in a West Philly high school, she gained or lost a student at least every two weeks. The process of leveling, organizing teachers and students into schools and classrooms at the beginning of the school year, has traditionally been chaotic. Students and teachers get shifted around to adjust class sizes and school resources — but textbooks don't. "Principals will say they don't know how many students they have until the first day of school," said Cooper. Principals have historically complained about this rostering challenge, and it's easy to imagine how it complicates the already-substantial task of finding enough books for students in an under-resourced district. "A good principal may be finding other resources," said Cooper. "Then, there is the set of principals who haven't ordered books because they're asleep at the wheel."

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