The Book Inventory Problem Has Nothing To Do with Books

There was some hubub surrounding an Atlantic Magazine piece on textbook inventory in the School District of Philadelphia.  The essence was that schools don’t have enough, but they are also monumentally inefficient with what they have, specifically with maintaining a textbook inventory.  It’s a fine article.  But the underlying question is a sort of demonstrative-throwing-of hands: “How is this possible?!”

It’s the usual suspects:  Churn, scarcity, ineptitude.  But you have to live it to really understand.  I hope to provide some light in this area.  The following narrative is based on true events, some stretched more than others.

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You’re a new Principal in the School District of Philadelphia.  Mazel Tov!  (I really mean it – I’ve worked for great and horrible bosses.  The tenor set by the Principal sets the school.  Do great things.)

First on the agenda:  Textbook Inventory.  HQ at 440 has asked for a full listing of books.  You are determined to do the right thing.  You’re not making the news for anything but the amazing kids and teachers.

You find the book closet.  It’s a mess, but you’re here to clean up messes.  You recruit your best-looking teacher, let’s call him Mr. Raltz, to help with the project.  After a concerted effort, you round up 150 textbooks for Freshman math.  They’re almost 5 years old, and you’re wondering how they would fit in a project-type classroom the district is pushing.  But you have 150 books for 110 incoming students.  Write it down.  Boom.

What to do with the surplus?  There has to be a school that needs these books, after all.  But…your kids lose books, right?  And some of them may have scoliosis.  What if you had a program to keep a book at home and at schoool?  Do you have the numbers?  And this is when Mr. Raltz1 informs you that, to his delight, he has located 6 copies of the set of “Animal Farm” from the class set that went missing 4 years ago.

What?  You read “Animal Farm”.  That sort of injustice is what caused you to start in education.  How did a whole set go missing?

It turns out the set had been missing for 5 years.   Who steals a set of novels?  The English department had compensated by photocopying the novel.  Your teachers tell you they almost like it more – kids can write in the margins.

Your brain explodes.

Your kids are not getting Xerox novels.  Order a full set.  You’re going to get to the bottom of this — after you check your email.  During the 90 minutes you spent starting inventory you received 30 new emails.  Out of the week, which day do you want a nurse?

The work is slow.  Your janitorial department shares space with the book closet, so you are constantly moving mops and light bulbs and broken furniture.  You find 7 copies of a novel.  What do you do with 7 books?  There’s no A/C and you sweat through your shirt by 10:00 am.  You have questions:  Do you list Hamlet differently from “Side-by-Side Hamlet”?  Do you need to list all the workbooks that go along with your Houghter-Mifflin textbooks?  Where does this list go? The directive was sent from the top, but the receipient of your list is simply “Office of Teaching and Learning”.

“Mastering Microsoft Word 2002”.  120 large-font pages, 40 copies, taking up  too much space.  But District policy is never to throw out text books.  Imagine if neighbors called the news about a poor Philadelphia school discarding valuable “learning tools”.  You email Teaching and Learning, you don’t expect a  response until Columbus Day.

You start finding books in weird places:  Under tables, in the locker room, in closets that nobody but the Building Engineer can open.  Mr. Raltz2 explains that Title 1 funding, the major source for these purchases, expires at the end of any school year.  Principals, operating without the training or time to manage the gargantuan Federal grant program, order books at the end of the year simply to make sure they don’t waste any money.  So they buy textbooks.  Teachers, having no idea what to do with books they might not need that arrive in June, stash them.  Years of churn means no one quite knows where everything is.  One science teacher, upon learning she had been let go for the following school year, didn’t bother to list any of the returned text books.

You begin to rage.  This is the behavior that holds schools back, this is the “old way”.  You are an agent of change.  Change things.

You ignore the emails about your English Language Learner specialist who is moving to Arizona and craft a beautiful email to the faculty.  You are on their side. You are certain your team – no, your family – can make this happen.  You will take your inventory, nail it to the door of the Superintendent and fight  for what your kids deserve.  It’s a great email, sent through your phone because you are 10 minutes late for a mandatory Principal’s luncheon.

Tuna salad, spinach wraps, smiles.  You hate these things.  You don’t know people and most importantly you have work to do.  You sit with your peers and try small talk.  Inventory?  Groans all around.  Nobody knows where this goes or who is checking it.  Smiling, you opine about losing “Animal Farm” and finding 40 extra books for 9th grade.

“Extra?  Did you say extra?”

Oh no.  It’s that guy.  He wears pinstripes and runs a storied high school, with an alumni association and real, potted plants.  He knows people and people know him.  Suddenly you realize you’re at a table with a group of type-A authoritarians who, right or wrong, would commit minor felonies for basic art supplies.  Scarcity turns everyone into a predator;  those smiles are all teeth.

Did I say 140?  I’m not sure which book it is – oh look at the time.  Gotta get things right in case Hite drops by, right?

Now it’s 4:00pm and the Building Engineer has gone home.  You can’t stop thinking about the inventory.  And the thing is you have to stop thinking about the inventory because the school you dream of requires work and work requires time.  You’re not going to lose this.  Your kids will not be shortchanged because you don’t have the right network.

You’re going to make this right tomorrow.  A full, real inventory with a note that any, any adjustment of textbooks must be run by your School Advisory Committee.  Yes, you need to actually create a School Advisory Committee, but there should be enough time to throw something together.  And there’s the nurse – she’s only here once a week, why not work out of the gym?  Is it 6:30 already?

Now it’s 8:30.  You spent enough time with your family not to feel like a total ogre. 1 episode of Mad Men, you’ve earned it.  You get a text from another Principal, a friend from your training program.  The guy at Teaching and Learning who was in charge of inventory?  Sacked 2 weeks ago.  You grind your teeth hard enough to break a filling.

Email Mr. Raltz3.  He’s not to spend more than an hour on this.  He’ll read between the lines.  You pull open the document, the inventory you are supposed to complete in time you don’t have in a school you don’t know on books you books you don’t have for a bureaucracy that doesn’t care sent to a person who doesn’t exist.

You have 110 ninth grade textbooks.  You’ll email whatever you have tomorrow.  What’s next?


  1. working over the summer? What a guy! 

  2. can you promote him?  You want to do that 

  3. and don’t forget to reserve a special crate of paper and some art supplies for him.