Give credit to Superintendent William Hite: He stepped forward Thursday and said his district has a plan for the thousands of unused books that sit in the basement of the School District headquarters and in shuttered Bok High School.

"It is totally and wholly unacceptable to have usable, relevant teaching and learning materials in storage when our students and teachers need these materials in our schools," he said. "I will take full responsibility if in fact there are usable and relevant teaching and learning materials."


That's the key. Because it points to a larger issue that has long plagued the School District - one that led to the books, instruments, and other school materials languishing in the first place: The district doesn't know what it has.

It's no secret. The district has been saying so itself for years. Since students first complained five years ago about not having enough textbooks to take home.

Unlike other big cities, Philly doesn't have a comprehensive textbook-inventory system to track where books and other supplies wind up. In a financially devastated district, that's insane. But there's just no money for it.

If the district doesn't know what it has, how can it make sure teachers are getting everything they need?

It's bigger than just some new software, of course.

It's about a cultural shift. One where the district continues to move away from the mistakes of past administrations, where curriculum was changed so often that millions of dollars in textbooks - and other hardly broken-in materials - were labeled useless and left to rot in the basement.

At the School Reform Commission meeting Thursday, Hite said the district had already been working to get the stockpile of materials sorted out.

Rather than a treasure trove of books, he described the stacks of textbooks, workbooks, readers, novels, and instruments that clutter Bok, as the unplucked remains of 30 closed schools. Teachers had taken what they needed, he said. The materials in the Acme-sized district basement were mostly outdated, he said.

After a company from Georgia inventories all of it, the district will redistribute, donate, sell, or recycle the rest. He expected it to all be done by the new school year. It's the cheapest and most efficient way, he said.

Teachers tell a different story. In the avalanche of e-mails and phone calls I received after writing about the books last week, many said they had no idea about the materials in the district basement. And despite the district's assurances to the contrary, teachers said there was hardly an open-door policy at School District headquarters, noting that a group of teachers from Palumbo High School were threatened with arrest when they tried to take one of the many unused copiers.

Those who were able to poke around (the basement is only open for about an hour and half after dismissal) said that they found plenty of usable materials - and that there was plenty of good stuff left. That even the outdated materials could be put to good use.

"We are the MacGyvers of the industry," said one teacher. "There's nothing that wouldn't be usable to somebody in some capacity."

More than a couple described the open houses at Bok last year as disorganized dashes for supplies. "Like a combination of that show Supermarket Sweep and a postapocalyptic society," said one. They said they never got a chance to go back and look at what was left over.

So many talked about all they do to get materials: a first-grade teacher who's going into credit-card debt to outfit her classroom with books and supplies. An eighth-grade teacher who types out and Xeroxes complete Shakespeare plays. That's just how it is, they said.

And so many others - teachers, retired teachers, librarians, education advocates, students, parents - volunteered to come sort the books. If the district doesn't want them, they would gladly take them, they said.

Hite said the district would look to work with volunteers who want to help get the books into classrooms or homes where kids could use them. Let's hope he keeps his word. In a district that needs so many big fixes, this can be an easy one.

215-854-2759 @MikeNewall