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Boston schools overpay for some books, review finds

State watchdog calls for changes

Anyone searching the Internet could find a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird’’ on the Barnes & Nobles website for $15.12. But when the Boston School Department bought 100 copies of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book last year, it spent $18.75 per book.

The result: $363 of taxpayers’ money spent unnecessarily because the School Department failed to shop around for the best price, according to an investigation by the state inspector general’s office. While the amount may seem small, that money could have supplied another classroom with a set of novels in these tight budget times.

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The School Department routinely shells out more than a typical shopper would pay for literature and nonfiction books by failing to look for the best deal, a violation of a state procurement law that requires local government agencies to exercise sound business practices when making purchases, according to the inspector general’s office. It scrutinized the district’s book purchases from April to September last year.

Boston school officials, like many of their counterparts statewide, wrongly believed that book purchases were not subject to the state law, according to the inspector general’s office.

Boston “could possibly save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year’’ if it compared prices and better coordinated the purchasing of books among its 125 schools, Inspector General Gregory Sullivan wrote in a letter to School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson on March 30. The Globe obtained a copy of the letter Tuesday. Aside from “To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ the letter did not cite any other price comparison examples.

“We are hoping that it is not just the city of Boston that learns from this; we are hoping that other districts will,’’ said Barbara Hansberry, general counsel for the inspector general’s office, a state watchdog agency that investigates government waste, abuse, and fraud.

The School Department is expected to spend $10.9 million for textbooks this year, the state said.

Johnson was not available for an interview Tuesday. In a statement, she defended the department’s book-purchasing practices and its spending of public tax dollars.

“We make every effort to use the public’s resources as efficiently as possible,’’ Johnson said. “The examples cited in the inspector general’s report are the exception rather than the rule. The inspector general’s report states that the vast majority of [School Department] purchases, 98 percent, were below the $25,000 threshold for a competitive bid process.’’

The state’s procurement process requires local government agencies to seek bids for purchases of $25,000 or greater, although exceptions are made in cases where only one vendor can provide such a product. In the case of textbooks, typically one publisher produces a particular chemistry book or reading series that matches a school district’s academic programs.

But the law also requires local agencies to obtain some quotes for purchases between $5,000 and $25,000, which can be done simply by checking different websites. For purchases under $5,000, the law requires sound business practices in buying items. While those practices are undefined, the inspector general’s office said it should include basic price checking.

Book purchases in Boston tend to be small-scale items. Of the 765 book purchases between April and September last year, 701 were for less than $10,000. In a time of tight budgets, though, every dollar saved can matter. Supplies and materials, which often includes book purchases, are often the first items to be cut.

The investigation focused on 233 purchases of fiction and nonfiction books that were widely available on the retail market to determine whether the School Department was paying a reasonable price.

On average, the investigation found, the School Department spent about 8 percent more on books than the average consumer would have, and it routinely paid more for shipping and handling.

The investigation found that the School Department’s business office, in reviewing a request for a book order, simply checked to see whether the school had funds for it and would then process the request, using the vendor the school chose.

In some cases, schools were making requests for the same books. But by keeping the orders separate, the School Department was missing out on a potential opportunity to try to get a better price for the books by increasing its buying power.

The investigation called upon Boston to follow the state’s procurement law, coordinate book purchases among its schools as much as possible and even with other school districts, and establish a cap on shipping and handling charges for vendors it has contracts with.

The inspector general also encouraged the School Department to investigate whether the Boston Educational Development Foundation, which handles book purchases for the School Department paid with charitable donations, should be subject to the state’s procurement law.

Johnson indicated in her statement that she was looking forward to discussing all the recommendations with the inspector general’s office and “implement any cost-saving strategies wherever possible.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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