Colleen Williams Reports | knbc.com
April 24, 2008 -- LOS ANGELES -- In 2004 the state stopped budgeting money specifically for elementary school libraries, and LA's school district has had to turn to private sources to help keep our kids reading. This is a two-part exclusive investigative report on how well LA Unified is managing this critical effort.
Video Part 1 | Video Part 2
Following are the transcripts of a two-part series that aired at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday, April 24, 2008.
Book Wars, Part 1
ANCHOR INTRODUCTION: It's one for the books -- a statewide crisis: the disastrous shortage of libraries and library books in public elementary schools throughout California, including our own Los Angeles Unified School District.
REBECCA CONSTANTINO, ACCESS BOOKS: It's recommended that you have about 25 books per student, and we serve schools that have five books per student.
COLLEEN WILLIAMS, REPORTER: Rebecca Constantino heads up a non-profit organization called Access Books that helps elementary schools renovate and restock their struggling libraries with private donations.
CONSTANTINO: On an average we give a school about 9,000 books ... It's never enough.
WILLIAMS: In the LA area, her principal competitor in library improvement is another nonprofit, Wonder of Reading. Her principal headache, she says, is the LA Unified School district itself.
WILLIAMS: You've approached Library Services with LAUSD. What's been their response?
CONSTANTINO: Their first response to us was, "You give too many books."
WILLIAMS: Somebody actually said that to you with a straight face, "You give too many books?"
CONSTANTINO: Many times.
WILLIAMS: Constantino's Access Books has donated 1.2 million books to local elementary schools in the past 10 years -- mostly in low-income areas -- and has helped repaint and upgrade school libraries at no cost to taxpayers or the schools.
(Addressing Constantino) There are no demands from you, Access Books, on the schools at all to provide any monies for books or libraries?
CONSTANTINO: Absolutely no financial demands on our part ... We rely on volunteers.
WILLIAMS: By contrast, rival Wonder of Reading relies on a well paid staff and requires each partner school to match its initial donations with money of its own -- $35,000 a school.
Guess which organization the LAUSD favors.
RONNIE EPHRAIM: Wonder of Reading Libraries sort of set a standard.
WILLIAMS: District Deputy Superintendent Ronnie Ephraim admits she prefers Wonder of Reading's more ambitious and costly effort.
EPHRAIM: Because it's a very formalized agreement not only with library services but with ... all our other units.
WILLIAMS: LAUSD's website urges donations to Wonder of Reading with no mention of Access Books. This, says Constantino, puts her at a disadvantage in the fund-raising game.
CONSTANTINO: It's getting harder and harder to solicit donations.
WILLIAMS: But it's not just the cold shoulder that she gets from the district, says Constantino, that worries her. She actually accuses the LAUSD of sabotaging her work.
CONSTANTINO: We have been told that they tell schools that we give lousy books and make a mess ... They also have come to schools and actually, from what we have been told, pulled books off the shelves that we've provided.
WILLIAMS: At meeting last summer, says Constantino, LAUSD's representative unloaded on her, even faulting her for the labels she places on donated books.
CONSTANTINO: She said, "Your labels are too small. They're an eighth of an inch ... And she said ... when children go into school libraries, they like everything to look good ... because a lot of these kids live in chaos and so the library should provide order.
WILLIAMS: But the real problem, says Deputy Superintendent Ephraim, is that Access Books won't purchase books from approved vendors who'll make sure they're barcoded and pre-catalogued with sturdy library bindings and the labels just right.
EPHRAIM: Believe me, we're not ungrateful to Access Books ... The difference is that in order for the books to come into the library they need to be processed.
But a vendor-processed book costs extra money, says Constantino -- an additional $15 per book.
She says she'd rather take that $15 and buy more books wholesale and process them herself, using volunteers and LAUSD's computers. But district officials say they won't let Constantino anywhere near their computers.
EPHRAIM: It's the district's database. It has a lot of information about schools. It would be like me going to your work and asking you to open up your database for me.
WILLIAMS: Nor, says Ephraim, does the district have enough staffers to process the large number of books donated by Constantino's group.
EPHRAIM: Sometimes up to 4,000, even 5000 books. Sometimes that too many for a library to handle.
Neighboring school districts have no such problems with Access Books.
NANCY CLIAH: They provide funding and books for our libraries and also provide ambiance for out libraries.
WILLIAMS: Nancy Cliah, library liaison for the San Bernardino School District, says her staff is so happy to get free books from Access they willingly assist in the processing.
CLIAH: We have trained our library aides how to enter the books that are coming in, that do not have the processing on them.
WILLIAMS: So why can't LAUSD do the same thing? Constantino says district officials have offered some help in processing books, but they want her to pay for the processing and cut back on her handouts.
CONSTANTINO: They finally came down to 50 cents a book, but they wanted to limit us to 300 books per school, which is basically a drop in the bucket for most of these schools.
Our producer asked Deputy Superintendent Ephraim if the district isn't imposing too much bureaucratic red tape on Constantino's efforts.
KNBC PRODUCER: In this time of crisis and shortage, can there be too much emphasis on order and discipline at the expense of just letting the books flow in?
EPHRAIM: Order and balance and ensuring we have the right books for different levels of readers ... all that is the place for the library.
WILLIAMS: All this leaves leaves Constantino wondering if LAUSD has its priorities straight.
CONSTANTINO: It's all about the books. It's all about having access to books. That's what it is.
ANCHOR TAG: Coming up on our 6 p.m. newscast: Part 2 of "Book Wars," this investigative series about LAUSD efforts to repair our struggling school libraries.
Book Wars - Part 2
Following is a transcript of the second part of the investigative report that ran at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 24, 2008.
ANCHOR INTRO: The state's budget crunch is crushing school libraries. Some local elementaries are down to five library books per student compared to the national average of 22 books to one. In the first part of this report, we focused on one effort to fix this mess. Now, a look at another powerful player in the district's Book Wars:
COLLEEN WILLIAMS, REPORTER: His family owns local movie theaters. But 14 years ago Chris Forman launched the nonprofit Wonder of Reading to help local elementary schools with their struggling libraries.
CHRIS FORMAN: The need is so great.
WILLIAMS: Beth Michelson is Wonder's executive director.
MICHELSON: We have this program, the 3R program -- renovate, restock and read -- in over one third of the elementary schools in LAUSD.
WILLIAMS: Wonder offers everything from $5,000 book grants to volunteer training. But its principal mission is to partner with elementary schools to turn excess classroom space into brand-new libraries.
MICHELSON: Providing a beautiful child-oriented, child-centered environment for learning.
WILLIAMS: The key is cost-sharing. Each partner school must donate $25,000 toward library construction and another $10,000 for books, with Wonder donating $35,000 or more for renovation alone.
(Addressing Forman) So you match the money the school gives you? Is that correct?
FORMAN: That's right. The schools are required to have $35,000. Almost inevitably they actually spend quit a bit more than that.
WILLIAMS: Wonder isn't the only local nonprofit engaged in library rescue. Another other is Access Books, which does all its work for free, at no cost to the schools or the district.
So which organization does the LAUSD favor?
RONNIE EPHRAIM: We've been in partnership with Wonder for many, many years,
Deputy District Deputy Superintendent Ronnie Ephraim says she prefers Wonder of Reading largely because it plays by the rules, buying all its books from approved vendors who process them for instant use.
Access buys from discount houses with no processing included, leaving that job to volunteers or library staff -- not a practical approach, says Ephraim.
EPHRAIM: What we found is that our librarians and our library aides were spending so much time processing books that they weren't spending time teaching.
WILLIAMS: Wonder gets exclusive billing on LAUSD's website, and school board members often supplement its work by throwing more money -- bond money -- at its already well funded libraries.
The results are dazzling -- reading cubicles, small amphitheaters, everything a student could want, says Camelia Hudley, principal of Leapwood Elementary, a beneficiary of Wonder's generosity.
CAMELIA HUDLEY: Every school in Los Angeles Unified, actually the state of California, the United States should have a Wonder of Reading Library.
WILLIAMS: But can such extravagance be justified when so many other elementary schools have inadequate libraries or practically none at all?
REBECCA CONSTANTINO: It doesn't make any sense to me.
WILLIAMS: Rebecca Constantino heads up rival Access Books, which relies entirely on volunteer labor and claims to be able to twice the good work Wonder does for each $35,000 donation.
CONSTANTINO: For schools we work with, $35,000 would refurbish two schools completely, with no cost to the school, with a little left over.
WILLIAMS: On top of this, there are questions about how Wonder presents its record to the public.
On its Web site, Wonder itemizes donations from partner schools. But repeatedly in public statements, it skips over them or lumps them together with its own, as in this brochure where there's no mention that school donations are included in this figure.
The result, says forensic accountant Chris Hamilton, is an inflated picture of Wonder's own accomplishments.
CHRIS HAMILTON: It makes them look like they are doing a whole lot more than they are.
FORMAN: Everything we do is in partnership with the schools ... We don't believe that anything we've put out is misleading.
WILLIAMS: Misleading or not, the hype has persuaded the district to do what it can for Wonder, even awarding contracts in a way that may favor its supporters. This company has repeatedly won Wonder contracts that should be open to competitive bidding.
HAMILTON: I would tell you there has not probably been a competitive bidding process. In other words, Wonder of Reading is bidding to LA Unified, saying, "Let us build your libraries, and here is our team."
WILLIAMS: And that leads to this question: If Wonder enjoys such latitude, can the district be sure of keeping a tight rein on all the money being spent?
BRUCE KENDALL, LAUSD: The district has oversight from our own interest.
WILLIAMS: Bruce Kendall, deputy chief for existing facilities at LAUSD, says he's firmly in control of construction expenditures, and submits all Wonder contracts to competitive bidding, including those awarded this company. But when we asked him for documents to prove that, he said they are not available.
KENDALL: We don't have them all collected ... They're in storage locations ... You have to go back and dig out ... so that what we're doing for you.
WILILAMS: We never got any documents. And Kendall admitted that even available LAUSD records are sometimes inaccurate, crediting Wonder of Reading with projects it never funded.
KENDALL: They were inappropriately listed as Wonder of Reading.
WILLIAMS: Our producer asked Deputy Superintendent Ephraim if she can clarify Wonder's role in library restocking.
KNBC PRODUCER: Would it be fair for Wonder to say it oversees the purchase of these books?
EPHRAIM: I don't know. I don't know.
WILLIAMS: She also didn't know that Wonder's partner schools provide much more money for initial book purchases than Wonder itself.
PRODUCER: Who provides the most and how do you monitor that process?
EPHRAIM: I don't know. I don't know who provides the most.
WILLIAMS: None of this fazes Chris Forman.
FORMAN: The bigger picture here is that through our partnership with schools, children's lives are changed and we know that.
ANCHOR TAG: We asked LAUSD school board members who approved bond money for Wonder of Reading projects to comment on our report. They declined.
All the educators we talked to praised the projects. Wonder insists that its partnership with the schools is an open book and that its contracts are awarded competitively by the district.
- April 21, 2008: Book Wars