Old, scarce schoolbooks get attention Officials proposing 50% larger budget for texts next fall; $1.4 million a year eyed; Improved system planned to manage purchase, sharing


Parents seeking evidence of the Howard County school system's years of tight budgets need look no further than the textbooks their children bring home each day -- and those their children aren't allowed to bring home.

Despite the Howard schools' relative wealth, many student texts are old and full of graffiti. Some are missing a few pages. A few have an odd odor. And all too often, they're outnumbered by the students assigned to use them.

"In English class, there aren't enough books for all of the classes, so we have to do all of the work in class and we can't bring them home," says Atholton High School junior Matt Martiny, 17, echoing a complaint familiar to many of the county's older high schools. "Most of the other books seem pretty old and marked up.

"It just doesn't make any sense that so much money is being spent on education but the books are in such bad shape and short supply," Matt says.

The deteriorating state of Howard's textbooks has prompted school officials to propose boosting the amount spent on textbooks by 50 percent beginning next fall, to about $1.4 million per year.

The extra money would allow Howard schools to replace all textbooks at least every eight years -- eliminating all-too-frequent situations where teachers and students are forced to rely on textbooks from the early 1980s.

School officials also plan to have a new system in place this school year to better manage the purchase and sharing of textbooks -- allowing textbooks to be bought in greater bulk at lower prices and helping schools share textbooks so they don't sit on shelves when they're not in use.

Such a system could save as much as 15 percent to 20 percent of what the school system spends on textbooks, school officials say, possibly allowing schools to replace textbooks even more quickly.

Spending more money on texts is a move that most parents say is long overdue. For years, the county's PTA Council has been calling on the school board and County Council to spend more on books and for the school system to set up a central textbook inventory system.

When presented with the plan two weeks ago, school board members quickly supported it and indicated it will be a high priority as they form next year's budget proposal in the next few months.

To be sure, the situation in Howard is better than in most other Maryland school systems. But Howard's textbook needs contrast sharply with its relative standing in per-pupil spending, at $6,793 per student in the 1994-1995 school year, the second highest in the state. Montgomery County spends the most.

And those familiar with the textbook problem in Howard warn that things could get much worse if it isn't corrected soon.

Since 1990, while the state's average per-pupil spending on textbooks has remained fairly constant, the amount Howard spends per pupil on textbooks has fallen 44 percent. That drop came as average textbook prices rose by about 75 percent, Howard school officials say.

In the 1994-1995 school year -- the most recent data available from the state education department -- Howard schools spent $24.83 per pupil on textbooks, more than $9 below the state average of $34.07.

"Six years ago, textbook funding was quite good, but since that time it has declined pretty significantly on a per-pupil basis because of the difficult budget situation," says H. Thomas Walker, the county school system's director of instructional materials. "The situation is that we have a lot of textbooks out there, but they are quite old."

In recent years, textbook replacement funding has been one of the first items cut when the school board has looked to trim its budget requests.

"No one likes what's happening with the textbooks, but we've just had so many priorities with the system's rapid growth," says board member Sandra French. "It's not a cut we like to make, but it's been unavoidable."

Consider the situation at Atholton in west Columbia, which is typical of the resulting problems at all of the county's high schools except at its two newest ones, River Hill and Long Reach.

Sophomore Ayrika Morgan relies on a 1982 honors biology textbook that is marked with graffiti and has pages falling out. "Some of the pages are starting to yellow, and it smells kind of weird, too," she says.

The textbook also is out of step with the curriculum, lacking much material on cells.

"So we have to use my teacher's college textbook to read the stuff on cells," Ayrika says. "It makes it pretty tough to study when the whole class has to rotate one book. I guess whoever gets it the night before the exam will have an easier time studying."

Ayrika's teacher, Bonnie Luepkes, agrees it's a problem but says she doesn't have an option -- particularly with a new high school biology book costing upward of $70.

"I don't like having to pass around a textbook for students to share, but I don't have any other choice," Luepkes says. "Biology changes so quickly -- like with technology on electrophoresis -- that you really need newer textbooks."

In an advanced-placement physics class at Atholton, Mike Simmons has 20 textbooks for the 20 students -- forcing him to use his own copy of the book that he saved from college, complete with pages that are falling out.

If Simmons had needed more books, he would have turned to a commercial catalog of used textbooks, because it's cheaper to buy a couple more 5-year-old books used and discarded by colleges than to replace the entire set with new books.

In the county's high school English classes, it's common that multiple editions of the same book are needed because teachers don't have enough copies of the same edition.

"We have four editions of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in class," says Atholton freshman Devin Brott. "It's pretty tough when the teacher tells you to turn to a specific page and everyone in the class has different copies. No one knows where we're supposed be."

In classes where there aren't enough textbooks for everyone to be able to take one home, teachers must cover the book work in class or let students borrow them on a first-come, first-served basis.

"I really don't like it when the teachers have to do the book work in class, because that's time the teachers could be doing other activities," says Atholton Principal Roger Plunkett.

In many high schools -- including Atholton -- department chairs call their counterparts at other schools to borrow books that aren't in use.

An Atholton chemistry class is using new textbooks from River Hill this year because the books won't be needed at River Hill until next year.

The county's older elementary and middle schools face similar problems with textbooks, but they tend to be affected less because high schools depend more on texts, particularly on ones that are more up-to-date, teachers say.

"Everyone has the mind-set that there is no textbook money, so you just learn to cope," says Carol Hahn, a fifth-grade teacher at west Columbia's Bryant Woods Elementary School.

Coping includes relying heavily on photocopied assignments and alternating books among classes. But teachers' funds for JTC photocopying are usually very limited.

"You can cope for a while, but eventually there's only so much you can do," says Susan Webster, principal at Bryant Woods. "The first- and second-grade workbooks are going to get replaced every year because the students write in them, but some of the other teachers simply have to be creative."

Relying on textbooks more than 5 or 6 years old also isn't practical in elementary schools, Webster says, because the instruction in those books isn't consistent with the 6-year-old Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- the exams now used by the state to grade schools.

For parents, seeing the conditions of the textbooks that come home each day can be a shock, particularly when they compare it to what they're seeing in the county's newer schools.

Sherry Wainger has one child at Centennial Lane Elementary School -- an older school -- and another at the 4 1/2 -year-old Burleigh Manor Middle School.

"I can't believe how much the conditions of the books differ," Wainger says. "I know that the world is changing pretty rapidly and it's hard for textbooks to keep up, but the books at older schools shouldn't be that old or in that bad of shape."

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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