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Textbook-buying system might be revamped

A House committee wants to cut $50-million from next year's $227-million instructional materials budget.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 25, 2003

Some state lawmakers think it's time to overhaul the way Florida school districts buy textbooks.

They have heard from teachers who complain that districts are forced to buy new editions when perfectly good older ones exist. They have received requests from school boards for permission to buy used books at a fraction of the new cost.

A draft report from the Legislature's auditing arm has suggested that districts could save millions of dollars in shipping charges if allowed to buy directly from publishers rather than through the central warehouse of the Florida School Book Depository.

"What we have here just strikes a note to ask the question: If we weren't already doing it this way, how would we do it?" state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said Monday.

Baxley is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which wants to cut $50-million -- 22 percent -- from next year's $227-million instructional materials budget. The $50-million would go to other education initiatives.

"We want to, first, assure that all students have textbooks," said state Rep. David Simmons, the Republican chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education Appropriations. "But at the same time, there are inefficiencies in the system. We want to eliminate those."

The idea of such a drastic cut is sending shudders through some lawmakers, who recall the public relations nightmare they faced five years ago when the textbook budget fell short of need.

"I'm all for flexibility. I'm all for choice," said Sen. Mike Fasano, the New Port Richey Republican who is sponsoring a bill that would give limited freedom in textbook purchasing to school boards in Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties. "But if you were to cut $50-million from instructional materials based on an assumption, I don't know if that's good business.."

The Senate spending bill calls for a $9-million increase to the $227-million textbook budget, to accommodate growth.

Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Senate President Jim King, said the House initiative could become a point of debate as the budget moves forward. Bascom predicted that textbook spending ultimately would end up in conference committee, where the House and Senate make compromises on bills.

Department of Education spokesman Bill Edmonds said Commissioner Jim Horne, who as a senator fought for full textbook funding, takes a dim view of the House move.

"He still very much wants to get the latest textbooks we can into students' hands and is still averse to buying used textbooks if that is what it would mean," Edmonds said. "We are not happy with the idea of not funding textbooks."

He noted that the governor's office has made improved reading performance a priority in its education plan. Cutting textbook spending makes no sense in that light, Edmonds said.

Representatives for textbook publishers were quick to rally against the cut, which they called "devastating." They noted that the draft audit from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability recommended small changes to the book buying system, such as buying used state-adopted books, but not major overhauls.

"We're flabbergasted about it, and we're worried because it's just going to take textbooks out of kids' hands," said Bob Boyd, the Florida lobbyist for the Association of American Publishers.

Fasano and Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, said they would stick to their companion bills to create a pilot program for Hernando, Pasco and Polk to buy used, state-adopted textbooks outside the current system. That bill won unanimous approval Monday in the House General Education Committee. It received support from the Senate Education Committee earlier this month. The pilot program would provide data showing whether the expected savings are real, Russell said.

"It would be a bit premature to assume anything at this point," Fasano said.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (352) 754-6115 or at solochek@sptimes.com .

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