Once upon a time, there was a building full of books...
March 19, 2015 2:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm pretty sure this was in The Wire.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:01 PM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Nothing new to see here. I can't find the news stories about it but this happened in Cleveland, too. It's disgusting.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:16 PM on March 19, 2015

I'm pretty sure this was in The Wire.

Two close parallels - in season 3, McNulty goes to his Fed contact to ask to borrow some high tech device for snooping on cell phones. The fed points out that the the police force was given 3 of them, and McNulty finds them boxed up somewhere in storage.

In season 4, Prez goes looking for something - possibly textbooks - down in school storage, and finds brand new computers, still in their boxes, just sitting there.

It would not be surprising to me that both were based on real incidents.
posted by nubs at 3:18 PM on March 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

It happened with the DC Public Schools a couple of years ago. Michelle Rhee used it as a photo op to shake up the complacency in the school system's bureaucracy and enhance her own profile. You can see the footage in the Frontline documentary starting around 11:25.
posted by peeedro at 3:27 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yikes. I had heard stories like this about government schools in Pakistan. Why is bureaucracy so inept everywhere?
posted by bardophile at 3:36 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by harrietthespy at 3:55 PM on March 19, 2015

The reason why bureaucracies are so inept is because most bureaucrats are there to collect a paycheck with minimum work involved.
posted by rankfreudlite at 3:56 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Why is bureaucracy so inept everywhere?"

For a refreshing look at one, I'd suggest "The New New Deal," by Michael Grunwald. The first-term Obama administration—and especially Joe Biden— come off looking pretty good.
posted by issue #1 at 3:58 PM on March 19, 2015

Why is bureaucracy so inept everywhere?

The answer, I think, is buried in this statement from the article, the buried lede:

With all the cuts in recent years - more than 5,000 employees in three years - the district lacks the resources to go through all the materials warehoused there.

Five thousand jobs in three years? In one district? That's a dramatic culling of personnel, and it sounds like there weren't enough warm bodies to organize all those books. You can't automate everything.

The reason why bureaucracies are so inept is because most bureaucrats are there to collect a paycheck with minimum work involved.

Or, maybe there are people who are more than willing to work but are laid off.
posted by zardoz at 4:05 PM on March 19, 2015 [14 favorites]

bardophile: "Why is bureaucracy so inept everywhere?"

In these US situations it's typically because they've cut administrative and operations staff by half, while the workload and its complexity has increased. You've got a warehouse staff that's half what it should be that is constantly either planning for the start of the semester or trying to cope with the start of the semester, because all their work spikes just a couple times a year, managing hundreds of thousands of books for tens of thousands of students and having to physically inspect them to ensure they can go back out to students the next year and try to stretch budget dollars for the ones that need replacing so Pluto isn't still being taught as a planet ...

Anyway, the books they needed the next year probably were immediately collected and went back to the warehouse, and then the rest of the books from the closed school kept falling to the bottom of the priority list every semester because they had to deal with current student book needs on a short staff, and then whoever was in charge of that project got laid off, and the institutional memory of it was lost in turnover, and then there was a nightmare software upgrade to the inventory system, and probably not all of the inventory was digitized at that point anyway ...

This is the most typical, infuriating local newspaper hack column ever:
Look at these incompetent bureaucrats who won't even give BOOKS to our CHILDREN who have no BOOKS: "This is simple. There is a big building with lots of books. And there are lots of children without books. Go and get the books and give them to the children." But don't pay anybody for it! When you're wasting money like this, you don't deserve more tax dollars! Get it done, with the overworked staff you have, and/or make overworked teachers volunteer to do it, because a "city block" of books is a volunteer project that can be done quickly and with few problems! And definitely we're not going to pay an adequate amount of money for curriculum or consumables! I mean, look at all the consumables you have just sitting there unused! WHY IN GOD'S NAME ARE YOU PAYING FOR AN OUTSIDE COMPANY TO DO WORK YOU SHOULD ALREADY BE DOING? I am definitely an advocate for Philadelphia's children, and not a person who distills complex problems I clearly don't understand down to simple slogans and does even more damage to the children's schools by suggesting they're too incompetent to be trusted with tax dollars and then complaining bitterly when they can't wring blood from a stone! I'M A LOCAL NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! OF COURSE I'M ON THE SIDE OF THE GOOD AND RIGHT!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:07 PM on March 19, 2015 [15 favorites]

Oh, articles that are written as if every single sentence were a paragraph in itself.

It drives me crazy.

I agree with Eyebrows that they probably know that the books exist and can see the logical "point A" and "Point B", but don't have the necessary resources to draw the line between them.

It's frustrating and it's sad.
posted by Elly Vortex at 5:31 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

If the district intends to just write off the books, it would actually be a really good project for a high school entrepreneurship club or something like that: Let a group of students organize and experiment with how to efficiently inventory, sort, and dispose of the books. Let them practice managing a large project and trying different strategies; let them brainstorm ways to get the books into the hands of teachers who want them, and use the unwanted ones to raise money for the district or get them to children and families who want/need them. It's a pretty good project because a LOT of it is simply hours and manpower -- they need to make lists of what's there to give to the district curriculum people, and the curriculum people need to give them back lists of what they want to keep, and then it's lots of listing and sorting and posting on internal websites and going to basketball games to give away free books.

But you'd still be paying for an adult to supervise them while they do it. And you'd have to be okay with the fact that they will almost certainly make errors and get rid of some books it would have been better to keep, and that it will take way, way, way longer. (Although in the aggregate it would probably save some money and better optimize the book disposal.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:51 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Books are virtually worthless. Just call goodwill and have them clean it out. And that article is terrible. Math is timeless? Really? Math curricula change all the time, and the Common Core and New Math and whatnot are totally different than prior methods.
posted by Slinga at 6:38 PM on March 19, 2015

The problem with this sort of thing is that it will cost so much to sort through the mess that it would be much cheaper just to donate and/or pitch them. Too much crap. I get the whole "give our kids books!" pitch, but it's definitely not that simple.
posted by Slinga at 6:41 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

To be fair, textbooks do go out of date, and if they aren't aligned with current standards they're not as useful. That doesn't account for all of the books, I'm sure, but my bet is that some of them deserve to be pulped. Just because a child is poor doesn't mean they should get sub-standard books.
posted by Biblio at 8:29 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm always wary of complaints about "bureaucracy". The right wing in the US like to pretend that it's a problem unique to government agencies, likely because they've never actually worked in a large wealthy corporation before.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:58 AM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Five thousand jobs in three years? In one district? That's a dramatic culling of personnel

Not necessarily. How many were they starting out with?
posted by BWA at 7:32 AM on March 20, 2015

General insight from a low-level bureaucrat: my prior job was at a county level, where I oversaw the application of land use and zoning laws. I knew most of my co-workers, because there weren't that many of us, and our jobs were all fairly closely related. If nothing else, I could spend 5 minutes and think about how my job connected me to almost anyone else around me, in the chain of events related to project permitting.

I now work in a state agency, where I am one of thousands. I probably know more people now, but I know what less of them actually do, because our staffing levels have been cut back in the years leading up to me getting hired, and we've had major reorganizations twice in my three years here, plus the usual mix of people changing jobs/departments, quitting, retiring, and new hires. In short, I don't think anyone can draw anything beyond a crude map of connections to other departments, let alone connections to individual people.

We mostly do our jobs as best as we can. Some are just biding their time until retirement, others get by on minimal work, or don't have enough to do to be busy all the time. You get people who are passionate about their field, and people who just want a stable job with benefits and don't want to think too much. Three years into this job, I'm still learning about how what I do might impact and relate to other departments, and it seems that never stops, as I've met people who don't understand much more than I do who have been here 10-20 years.

This is all to say, scale up the width of a bureaucracy, then cut back the staffing necessary to get everything done in an efficient manner (in part because upper management doesn't understand how all the pieces fit together, or what all the pieces actually do), and things fall through the gaps. Except sometimes those gaps are huge rifts in the earth, which seem small from the view of upper management, who are trying to ensure everything is getting done per federal requirements.

Efficient management of a large-scale system like this requires upper managers who work together, trust each-other and each understand some section of the huge whole. Add in back-stabbing to secure funding and staffing, or people placed by politicians or through friendships, and throw out any hope of things running as well as they could. Management is dry, boring but critical.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:06 AM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Metafilter - Books are virtually worthless.
posted by DigDoug at 5:41 AM on March 23, 2015

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