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Book fight targets quiet system

Amid a building debate on the cost of schoolbooks is an ingrained method and a hub that moves millions of texts.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2003


JACKSONVILLE -- The cardboard boxes that fill this cavernous warehouse are stuffed with school textbooks -- 8.5-million of them on a slow day, 11-million during the busy season.

In the front, receiving clerks are checking in thousands more, which forklift operators quickly whisk away. Meanwhile, a shipping team is readying orders that will be delivered to school districts from Pensacola to Key West. The biggest load on this day is 10 trucks filled with literature books heading for Palm Beach County.

This is the Florida School Book Depository, a bustling business that has supplied the state's schoolchildren with textbooks for the past 86 years -- mostly with little public attention.

"We are used to doing business anonymously," company president Herb Stanley said.

But not this year. Members of the Florida House want to cut $50-million from the state textbook system. They are targeting the depository, which they consider inefficient and obsolete.

They think school districts should be allowed to bypass the depository and buy directly from book publishers. They also want districts to purchase used books whenever possible.

"Huge warehousing of large inventories is a thing of the past," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and member of the House Appropriations Committee.

That position, driven largely by an audit report that many dispute, has placed the for-profit, family-owned depository squarely in the public eye.

Many educators want the depository left alone. They say it provides one-stop shopping for textbooks and eliminates the cost and hassle of dealing with multiple publishers.

Publishers value the depository for the detailed data it provides about inventories and buying patterns.

State senators also oppose the House's attack. They want to increase the textbook budget by nearly $10-million next year, as does Gov. Jeb Bush.

"We want to, first, assure that all students have textbooks," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the House Appropriations Education Subcommittee. "But at the same time, if there are inefficiencies in the system, we want to eliminate those."

The depository grew out of a system that took root in the late 1800s, when most of Florida's school textbooks were shipped by rail.

Teachers would use whatever books were available. It wasn't unusual for 25 students in the same classroom to be working from 25 different titles.

Then state lawmakers developed statewide curriculum standards, which required uniform textbooks. But they needed somewhere to store the approved books.

Hence, a depository.

The first depository, a private company run out of Atlanta, failed. So in 1917, publishers asked B.D. Fincannon, one of their regional sellers, to create another. The warehouse he built led directly to the massive facility that now sits in a nondescript industrial district of northwest Jacksonville.

The system it houses has changed little in the years since.

Florida still has statewide curriculum standards, stricter now than ever. Companies that want to sell textbooks here know those standards. And because Florida is one of the nation's five largest textbook purchasers, publishers willingly spend millions of dollars to develop materials that support the instructional goals.

Each year, review committees recommend books for adoption, and the education commissioner makes the final choice. Publishers and the state then enter a six-year, fixed-price contract that requires all the materials to be made available through a textbook depository.

Most publishers use the Florida School Book Depository, which Fincannon sold to the Bent family of Jacksonville in 1958. The publishers pay the depository a commission of about 6 percent on every book they sell.

Others have tried to grab a slice of the market, without success.

"We have been fortunate," said Stanley, the depository's president. "The publishers have continued to use us."

Wagging a finger

But officials in some school districts would like them to stop. The strongest opposition may be in Hernando County, which enrolls 18,000 students.

School Board members there are convinced they can save up to $300,000 a year if allowed to buy textbooks from a used-book vendor.

"We have to buy books from the depository, and they're $50 to $60 each," said board vice chairwoman Sandra Nicholson. "I can go online and get the same book for $20."

With Nicholson in the lead, the board tried and failed for years to work around the depository. Finally, the board turned to Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

The lawmakers proposed a pilot program for Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties to begin in the summer. They wanted to see how much money a district could save by buying used books outside the depository. After a few years, they reasoned, the data would prove whether the idea was feasible.

But in a year of tight budgets, the concept took off "like wildfire," Russell said.

A government watchdog group added fuel to the blaze when it issued a draft report that said school districts could save 5 percent or more in shipping costs if the state let them order directly from publishers. The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability said districts also could save about 24 percent if allowed to buy used materials.

Education Secretary Jim Horne, among others, is challenging those assertions. He says school districts pay, on average, 0.89 percent for shipping from the depository. And many districts, he says, "have commented that the time and staff required to purchase from multiple vendors would be cost-prohibitive."

But the House chose to believe the analysis and accountability office numbers. So when Stanley showed up for a legislative committee meeting last month, his company had become a target.

One member wagged a finger in his face and scolded him for taking money from Florida taxpayers.

"The discussion . . . was very difficult to stomach," Stanley said.

Changing times, needs

Tom Stanton, the director of instructional materials for Pinellas County schools, likes the depository. He said he had no desire to change a system that effectively allows his district to deal with 76 publishers while maintaining a staff of just six.

"The depository bends over backward to help our district and every other district," said Miami-Dade's Pat Evans, president of the Florida Association of District Instructional Materials Administrators. "The efficiencies (House members) talk about would just place more burden on the districts."

Others are less certain.

"With today's shipping and FedEx and UPS . . . publishers all over the country ship directly to school systems. They do it overnight," said Steve Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers school division.

Driesler noted that many publishers consider Florida's depository the best in the country. Still, he said, dealing directly with a customer could be preferable.

"A lot of the reasons depositories originally were created, one has to question: Do they really need to exist in today's world?" he said, calling depositories an anachronism.

Florida's system has come under scrutiny over the years. Gov. Claude Kirk, then-state Sen. Bob Graham, former Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher and others all made inquiries into the business that seemed a monopoly.

But no one demanded changes of the magnitude being discussed now.

Stanley hopes for and expects the same result again.

Though at first leery of the Russell-Fasano pilot program to allow three school districts to buy used books, he now sees it as a way to prove the depository's value.

"We would welcome them taking a look for themselves," he said.

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