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Boston to alter how it buys schoolbooks

Superintendent aims for lower-price strategy

The Boston School Department says it is taking steps to ensure that administrators and teachers obtain the best value when buying widely available books, one month after the state’s inspector general found that the department often paid more than average consumers would have.

The School Department intends to better coordinate urchases of nonfiction and literary works among its 125 schools to increase its buying power, hopefully resulting in a lower cost per book, according to a letter that Superintendent Carol R. Johnson sent to Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan on April 20.

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It also plans to include language in its contracts with vendors that would guarantee that the School Department obtain prices as low as or lower than those available to other customers. And the department will rely more heavily on the Internet and other information and networking systems by implementing an “e-procurement’’ program and “Strategic Sourcing,’’ a process to monitor purchasing activities.

Johnson outlined the changes in the letter in anticipation of meeting Wednesday morning with the inspector general’s office - a state watchdog agency that investigates government waste, abuse, and fraud - saying she looked forward to discussing the agency’s findings and recommendations.

“I welcome the opportunity to consistently review our practice, identify areas for improvement, and implement those ideas that contribute to success for our educational mission and utilization of public funds in the most efficient ways,’’ Johnson wrote.

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Sullivan applauded Johnson’s decision to take quick action.

“Dr. Carol Johnson has demonstrated strong leadership by executing innovative reforms that go far beyond even what our letter recommended,’’ Sullivan said. “Her E-Procurement and Strategic Sourcing reforms should be considered for adoption by every municipality in the Commonwealth.’’

In its investigation, the inspector general’s office found that the School Department routinely spent more than a typical shopper would have paid for novels, plays, and other books by failing to look for the best deal. The agency deemed it a violation of a state procurement law that requires local government agencies to exercise sound business practices when making purchases.

The inspector general scrutinized 233 purchases of books that were widely available on the retail market from April 2011 to September 2011 and found that the School Department typically spent 8 percent more on books than the average consumer. It also discovered that the School Department often paid more for shipping and handling.

From the start, Johnson has defended the School Department’s book purchasing practices and its spending of public tax dollars, but she also expressed a willingness to review and implement any of the cost-saving strategies “wherever possible’’ that the inspector general recommended. Those measures included coordinating the buying of books among its schools and establishing a cap on shipping and handling charges for its contracted vendors.

Johnson remains concerned, however, that Sullivan’s investigation has left an impression that overspending on books is rampant among the city’s schools.

“While we may have questions about some of the conclusions in your letter and the impression that its findings apply to the totality of our book purchasing, instead of a minority, I believe our efforts are best directed at urgently fixing the problems that do exist,’’ she wrote.

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