The head of the Philadelphia teachers' union wants to let his membership go through the piles of discarded books warehoused in school buildings and distribute them to needy classrooms.

The School Reform Commission's former chair concedes that "frankly, it was not as thought out as it should have been as far as inventory when [they] went into the basement" of district headquarters.

And the School District spokesman says principals were invited to drop by and pick up any materials they needed, but "not a lot of principals showed up."

This was the range of reactions to a column in Wednesday's Inquirer that described a full city block of books and supplies cast off by the cash-poor school system.

The column, by Mike Newall, cataloged thousands of books - many still shrink-wrapped - that are collecting dust in the district's basement headquarters, and thousands more, along with some cast-aside musical instruments, flooding the hallways and classrooms of the now-closed Bok High School across town.

Under a plan hatched by the district when it shuttered 24 schools, Bok became the terminus for thousands of books.

"What did they do, just dump a whole bunch of books somewhere? It's shocking," said Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

Haver says textbooks have always been in short supply in the district but the problem worsened after recent bare-bones and doomsday budgets.

The district and the current head of the School Reform Commission contend that the books reflect a surplus problem, not a shortage, and say a plan is far along to turn outdated books into cash.

Fernando Gallard, the district spokesman, said principals and teachers were invited to open houses held at Bok for eight weeks last summer, including on two Saturdays. Turnout, he said, was light.

The district saved more than $2 million by redistributing Bok textbooks to other schools, he said.

For years, Gallard said, he has heard allegations that teachers don't have enough textbooks, but said that when he investigated, he found either that the allegations were largely untrue or the situation was easily corrected.

"I'm not aware of teachers actually buying textbooks," he said.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, disagreed. "So I guess the teachers have books they just are imagining they don't have?"

Marjorie Neff, the new chair of the SRC, said a resolution was passed in December to hire a vendor to inventory the books at no cost to the district.

She said the district does not have enough staff to wade through the stockpile.

The contract with Textbook Warehouse, a Georgia-based company, is not yet finalized, but work could begin within months, Gallard said.

"We don't want to be giving kids substandard materials or inaccurate materials," Neff said. "Most of the books that I saw were woefully outdated. Ten years or more. I can't speak to why this happened over time, but we're trying to address the problem."

Former SRC Chair Bill Green said he could sympathize with the district's handling of books at Bok, but he agrees more could have been done about textbooks going to waste at district headquarters.

"We need to move on it," he said.

The books-in-the-basement problem didn't appear overnight, Gallard said. "They have kept them here for many, many years and nobody wanted to deal with it."

Haver drew parallels between the books and the district's earlier handling of its wealth of paintings. "Look what they did with all that artwork," she said. "They stuck it somewhere. Nobody knew what was going on with it."