Teachers, councilmen criticize disposal of textbooks at closing school

Closing Baltimore school disposes of hundreds of textbooks, sparking outrage

When Heritage High School closed its doors for good this week, students and staff were not the only ones displaced. They were joined by John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Shakespeare.

Despite pleas from teachers, community leaders and city councilmen, the Northeast Baltimore high school disposed of hundreds of books, which ranged from math and science textbooks more than a decade old to timeless classics. Some, teachers said, still had crisp pages and the new-book smell.

City school officials said schools recycle books annually if they are outdated or deemed in poor condition. For years, the district has worked with a vendor that has hauled off books or paid the district a resale value for them.

But the practice of purging the books, recently brought to light at Heritage, has outraged many who say they could be put to better use if they were recycled into the community.

Heritage, located on the Lake Clifton campus, is one of five schools the school board voted to close this month. In the weeks leading to the closure, teachers said they received little direction on how to dispose of equipment, beyond throwing away some glassware from science labs.

"We started to think, what is going to happen with these books?" said Neil Rubin, who taught English at Heritage this year.

Rubin said it soon became clear when staff members received word that only books published before 2000 would be thrown away. The directive was from the central office, officials there confirmed.

Rubin said he began grabbing copies of Elie Wiesel's "Night" and Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to save from the recycling bin.

But Rubin, former senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, said he watched in horror Monday as other classics and textbooks met a different fate.

"As a newcomer to the system, one of the things that I learned is that these kids are looking to be challenged, and they need role models and leadership to do it," he said. "Role models don't throw out books. And these are exactly the types of books that they need to be reading, because they make them dream and think."

The school's principal, Stephanie Farmer, did not respond to a request for comment. Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union, said Farmer was following orders.

"It's very important that the public understands that this principal is under a lot of pressure trying to close out a school, and trying to follow the directives of 10 different people," Gittings said.

"I have tried to work diligently with management, but I will not stand for administrators being humiliated and chastised for things they have been directed to do."

In a statement, school system officials said they were "exercising good stewardship of both resources and the environment" in "weeding out" textbooks.

While educators and others said they saw books in trash bins, the school system said the books were put in large recycle bins owned by the city that resemble Dumpsters.

In the case of schools that are closing, the statement said, the district attempts to reuse some books in other schools.

"When books/educational materials at any school are deemed to be no longer usable — whether because of content or condition — they are recycled or, occasionally, sold to a book-resale vendor," the statement said. "Generally, these include texts with copyright dates prior to 2000 or that are damaged."

Two city councilmen and others in the community were fuming Tuesday as they wondered what would happen to the hundreds of books that remained at the school.

Rubin browsed the book room, where copies of "The Return of the Native" by Thomas Hardy and "Paradise Lost" by John Milton remained. Teachers said a school administrator announced that there would be no more books thrown away, no matter the publication date.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who said he watched Monday as books were poured from a bin into the back of a city dump truck at Heritage, called the move nonsensical.

Stokes went to the school after receiving calls from community members who said they were being blocked from taking the books to distribute to students and school libraries, or to start classes on topics such as financial literacy.

"I was greatly disappointed that they were throwing them in the Dumpster, when there were people wanting to take them," Stokes said. "I couldn't believe it — that I had just watched a loader take a Dumpster full of books."

Stokes said he called the school system headquarters to tell them not to dispose of them and that a district representative told him the books were out of date. But Stokes said he took an accounting textbook that looks brand new and contains content that will always be relevant.

"I still think two plus two equals four, and a balance sheet still needs to balance," Stokes said. "Out of date for book companies means that they change the cover and resell the system another $1 million worth of books."

Local business owner Terence J. Dickson, who called Stokes and other members of the City Council about the books, dived into the school's recycle bin twice to retrieve books that had been thrown out. He said he also saw books in trash cans.

Over the years, Dickson, the owner of Terra Cafe, has helped to restock school libraries from donations. He hoped to continue doing that with the books from Heritage and also to donate them to recreation centers.

"I had teachers with tears in their eyes, who were so upset to see those books go in," Dickson said.

Photographs Dickson shared with The Baltimore Sun show recycle bins filled to the brim with books, including math textbooks such as algebra and accounting. The titles included "Hamlet," "The Meaning of the Constitution" and "When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore." He even found a record album of "The Wiz."

At least one textbook with several copies in the recycle bin was published in 2011, The Sun found.

Dickson said he was denied access by the school's administrators to take the books and was escorted out of the building.

"You sit and you collect a check every week because you say you care about kids," said Dickson. "But you can't and do something like this."

City Councilman Brandon Scott said he also called school officials to express concern after he was contacted by Dickson about the discarded books.

"In light of all that's been going on in Baltimore over the last few months, we have to realize that it's all hands on deck," Scott said.

"And when we have people from the business community who realize that and want to take books that aren't being used anymore to help other children, they shouldn't have to call me to do so."

One of the lasting memories that Shamarla McCoy, a Spanish teacher at Heritage High, will have of her school is a "circus" as people came by to pick through books and pile them in their cars.

"It was just very disheartening to see the total disregard for books," she said of the system's decision to dispose of the books. "A book will never go out of style. It was really sad. It was like 'wow, what a waste.' "

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

erica.green@baltsun.com

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