What Our Public Schools Need: More Rotting Piles of Books

Caveat: I have no idea what the full back story behind this link might be. Perhaps some public servant can come in and explain why in fact the city of Detroit's action was perfectly appropriate or necessary. But on its face it seems a fascinating indictment of the public school bureaucratic mentality. [UPDATE: Thanks to highnumber in the comment thread for finding a news story with more. The school district sold the building as is after a fire. Can't tell from the account whether it was the case that sorting through and moving the still usable material would cost more than just giving up and buying new ones, but it's certainly possible. Still, this story from commenter J sub D makes one think that just abandoning things isn't uncommon for Detroit's school system--which still isn't to say that the abandonment might not have ultimately made economic sense.]

It starts as a general discussion of urban exploration (of abandoned buildings) in the Detroit area, then becomes a photo travelogue of a particular one: an abandoned public school book depository. An excerpt of the text:

This is a building where our deeply-troubled public school system once stored its supplies, and then one day apparently walked away from it all, allowing everything to go to waste. The interior has been ravaged by fires and the supplies that haven't burned have been subjected to 20 years of Michigan weather. To walk around this building transcends the sort of typical ruin-fetishism and "sadness" some get from a beautiful abandoned building. This city's school district is so impoverished that students are not allowed to take their textbooks home to do homework, and many of its administrators are so corrupt that every few months the newspapers have a field day with their scandals, sweetheart-deals, and expensive trips made at the expense of a population of children who can no longer rely on a public education to help lift them from the cycle of violence and poverty that has made Detroit the most dangerous city in America. To walk through this ruin, more than any other, I think, is to obliquely experience the real tragedy of this city; not some sentimental tragedy of brick and plaster, but one of people...

Pallet after pallet of mid-1980s Houghton-Mifflin textbooks, still unwrapped in their original packaging, seem more telling of our failures than any vacant edifice. The floor is littered with flash cards, workbooks, art paper, pencils, scissors, maps, deflated footballs and frozen tennis balls, reel-to-reel tapes. Almost anything you can think of used in the education of a child during the 1980s is there, much of it charred or rotted beyond recognition. Mushrooms thrive in the damp ashes of workbooks. Ailanthus altissima, the "ghetto palm" grows in a soil made by thousands of books that have burned, and in the pulp of rotted English Textbooks. Everything of any real value has been looted. All that's left is an overwhelming sense of knowledge unlearned and untapped potential. It is almost impossible not to see all this and make some connection between the needless waste of all these educational supplies and the needless loss of so many lives in this city to poverty and violence, though the reality of why these supplies were never used is unclear. In some breathtakingly-beautiful expression of hope, an anonymous graffiti artist has painted a phoenix-like book rising from the ashes of the third floor.

A whole bunch of education-related stories from reason.

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  • Fluffy||

    Is it possible it burned first, and the city just didn't have the money to tear the building down?

    After all, if the fire department had hosed the place down and if there was smoke and water damage to the contents it might not have been worthwhile to try to salvage anything.

    If not, though, this is creepy in an Atlas Shrugged "No one gives a damn any more so a whole building full of supplies was simply forgotten as a wasted asset" sort of way.

  • ||

    First, let's kill all the educators.

  • ||

    J sub D

    As our local Detroit reporter, care to comment?

  • de stijl||

    (Cocks shotgun)

    To the book depository!

  • ||

    Link to news story someone put up on one of the flickr pages. Gives a little background. The building was sold "as is" by the school district after the fire in the late 1980s.

  • ||

    What will it take to teach everyone that building a school book depository is a bad idea?

  • Episiarch||

    Maybe they were afraid someone would shoot a president from the building and let it fall into disrepair to prevent that? That's some forward thinking.

  • ||

    This is definitely a sad scenerio, but also kinda neat. Plants growing in decaying educational materials is so artistic.

  • ||

    Highnumber---Thanks. It's certainly possible that the cost of sorting through to find the still usable books and moving them was more than the cost of buying new ones. One wonders, though.

  • ||

    This is business as usual for the Detroit Public Schools. While I don't know the specifics of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, this is much more recent. As is this.

    It brings tears to this cynical bastards eyes.

  • ||

    j sub---you rule. The post has been updated and amended to include highnumbers and j Sub's great links.

  • Neu Mejican||

    A story like this is very case specific.

    As are all education stories.
    Education is a local story.

    Poor management of a particular school district is a local story that says nothing about the larger topic of public vs. private schools.

    Many public school districts do a wonderful job managing resources efficiently. And, even in this case (thanks highnumber) it looks like much ado about nothing.

    Anecdotes are informative, but deceptive.

  • ||

    "No Trespassing" signs are nowhere to be found at those schools.

    There's no point in putting up signs, if the thieves are illiterate.

  • Neu Mejican||

    JsubD,

    Those are better examples of how-not-to-do-it.

    Here is an example of a good idea in public education resource management.

    http://www.ces.org/ces/ceshis/ces_hist.asp

  • ||

    Aresen, was that post what you were looking for? The Mongolian gang bang that is the Detroit Public School System would require a day or two of solid work to assemble an overview of the corruption and malfeasance we concerned Detroiters see on a regular basis.

  • ||

    Two links presented without comment (or < a > tags. Copy and paste, bitches):

    http://www.detroitblog.org/?p=405

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=woodward+%26+8+mile+detroit+mi&ie=UTF8&ll=42.422756,-83.101155&spn=0.002693,0.00464&t=h&z=18&iwloc=addr&om=0

  • Neu Mejican||

    So about that 1.5 million in travel expenses...

    Isn't the budget of a district the size of Detroit like a billion or more?

    How out of line is that compared to the need?

  • ||

    Cheesem Crackers Warty, that map view is like what Sim City looks like if you seriously fuck up.

  • ||

    Neu Mejican: The DPS budget for FY 2007 was $1.4 billion. Yeah, it's pretty sizable, amounting to about $13,000 per pupil per year (enrollment is around 105,000).

    The situation with DPS is just depressing all around, and is sadly emblematic of the state as a whole right now (commenting from the other southern corner of Michigan, namely Kalamazoo).

  • ||

    Many public school districts do a wonderful job managing resources efficiently.

    I attended to a quality public school system in the 'burbs. I can relate the good points of Livonia Public Schools till the cows come home. The system wasn't perfect, but it was damned good for public schools. It can be done, which just infuriates me more when I observe the citizens of Detroit get sodomized by their elected school officials, their sinecured* employees, and far too many parents who don't give a damn.

    I know, I know. Still the word(?) works.

  • Geoff Nathan||

    Two links presented without comment (or < a > tags. Copy and paste, bitches)
    I guess this constitutes collusion in a thread-jacking but the Detroitblog article is a little out of date, as, for example, a new high end grocery store is set to open in the neighborhood where the former synagogue is located--just heard about it two weeks ago. Yes, much of the city of Detroit looks like London a couple of years after the blitz, but parts of it are clawing their way back. I live here too, and even though (good libertarian that I am) I'm skeptical of government attempts to do something, I cheer on any attempt to make the center of the city more liveable.

  • Neu Mejican||

    madmikefisk,

    That sounds like Detroit has enough money to do the job. My guess is that they are spending it disproportionately on management positions.

    Happens a lot in big cities.

    Smaller districts tend to be more responsive to student/community needs. The trick is to provide adequate funding in poor communities/districts through smart fiscal management programs as the state level.

  • Neu Mejican||

    as = at

  • ||

    J sub D

    Exactly what I was looking for. Depressing.

    Even more depressing is madmikefisk's $13K/student figure. With that number, the teacher/student ratio should be around 10:1. (Figuring $65K = average teacher's salary and, on a business model, line staff salaries = 1/2 of costs.)

  • Tom Walls||

    These books will be used as the foundation of knowledge in the society that rises from the ashes after ours.

    Hopefully there are no pictures of apes in cages in these books.

  • Neu Mejican||

    JsubD,

    Regarding "sinecured" positions... I hope you are not referring to the teachers...certainly not a position requiring little or no work...but as for "the senior manager of resources for after school programs" and the "janitorial quality assurance officer" you've got a point.

  • mpp||

    There are times I miss living in Detroit. It was like having a great big city all to yourself. My Ex explored the book repository and train station. I never went inside any of the ruins.

    To understand the DPS you have to understand that it is now the largest employer in the city of Detroit. No one really cares about the education of the kids, they care about collecting paychecks. That's why, despite declining enrollment, there is so much community pressure to keep all the schools open. It also explains why they rejected a $200 million gift to build 15 new charter schools.

    Then there's the $1,000,000 art purchases... Drop in the bucket, maybe. But a million bucks is a million bucks.

    Mayor Kilpatrick has been really pushing for charter schools lately. He has zero control over the DPS so he's been operating behind the teachers union's back.

  • ||

    Book Suppositories are evil places. One of JFK's shooters hid in one. They should all be burned down.

    Besides, even with a butt load of vaseline, insertion is a bitch.

  • ||

    Regarding "sinecured" positions... I hope you are not referring to the teachers...certainly not a position requiring little or no work...but as for "the senior manager of resources for after school programs" and the "janitorial quality assurance officer" you've got a point.

    I was referring to DPS being used as a jobs program, including the teachers. As a teacher, you've got to sell drugs to students to get canned. That situation is not unique to Detroit.

    Now that I'm started, let me relate this. In Michigan, 4 Fs and 2 Ds on your report card makes you academically eligible for interscholastic sports participation. No, I'm not making that up.

  • ||

    just google Alonzo Bates and this will all make sense.

  • ||

    just google Alonzo Bates and this will all make sense.

    Geez, Happy Jack. Did you have to bring that bowel movement up?

  • Happy Jack||

    Did you have to bring that bowel movement up?

    If you want to know where the smell is coming from, unfortunately you have to go to the source. :)

  • ||

    Book Suppositories are evil places. One of JFK's shooters hid in one. They should all be burned down.

    Besides, even with a butt load of vaseline, insertion is a bitch.


    Pop: "What did you learn in school today, son."

    Junior: "Just a bunch of shit."

  • Mike Laursen||

    ... it might not have been worthwhile to try to salvage anything

    Salvaging the usable materials would have cost a trivial amount. Get some teachers, parents, and students to volunteer to pick through the stuff. Maybe buy them some pizza.

    Maybe that has happened, but judging purely by what this travelogue says, sounds like nobody gave enough of a damn to try to salvage anything.

  • ||

    If Detroit would just vote out all those nasty uncaring Republicans from city office, then I am sure that these things would get fixed.

  • ||

    Salvaging the usable materials would have cost a trivial amount. Get some teachers, parents, and students to volunteer to pick through the stuff. Maybe buy them some pizza.



    You are being sarcastic, right?

  • Mike Laursen||

    No, I'm serious. Asking people to volunteer, buying them pizza, it's a pretty standard way of getting something worthwhile done on the cheap.

  • ||

    If Detroit would just vote out all those nasty uncaring Republicans from city office, then I am sure that these things would get fixed.

    Which kinda makes the whole thing about Detroit's City Council being pretty much all Democrats (as far as we know, city elections there are nonpartisan, but just going by the city's voting record, quite likely) all the more amusing, which was probably your point.

  • ||

    Mike,
    Union rules and/or OSHA would most likely require HAZMAT suits to pick through fire/smoke damaged books. Soot can cause cancer and breathing problems.

    Thank goodness for the Nanny State.

  • ||

    The various photo blogs about abandoned buildings in Detroit are creepy and depressing.

    And the saddest thing is that Michigan could probably come back to life pretty quickly if they passed a right-to-work law and gave a swift kick to the UAW. There's a lot of underused expertise in Mich. that Toyota or Honda would probably be glad to have if they didn't have to deal with the UAW and the thug state.

  • ||

    Union rules and/or OSHA would most likely require HAZMAT suits to pick through fire/smoke damaged books. Soot can cause cancer and breathing problems.

    Good point. If it is your own house or business, you ignore OSHA, there's no union, and you rationally salvage what you can. If it's the governments building, to hell with it. Too much work.

    OTOH, the story about supplies left behind in closed schools has got to be something like "Not my job, man". Not one public servant (Hah!) thought to address this? Nobody noticed all this valuable stuff left behind? Unforgivable.

  • ||

    Why would you make an effort to operate efficiently, or recycle usable books and other teaching materials? Why would you secure (or winterize) school district properties? You can always just take some more more of that free money from the civilians.

  • LarryA||

    Get some teachers, parents, and students to volunteer to pick through the stuff. Maybe buy them some pizza.

    In union shops "volunteer"="filthy scab taking paying jobs."

  • ||

    more more of that

  • ||

    In union shops "volunteer"="filthy scab taking paying jobs."

    Unless they're picketing WalMart. :-)

  • kneemoe||

    I wish I could worry about this, but working in a urban school district I see this type of thing all the time. New editions of books ordered (b/c some administrator is getting a kick-back) only to find out we didn't order enough of them so the order goes out through the district that no one can use them (can't have inequalities within the district of course)
    and its not just books, technology stuff is even worse. Private companies will donate things (like GE donating an ungodly expensive interactive globe) only for it to sit and rot somewhere in the corner

    and its reasons like those above that are forcing me to look for a different job, because this place disgusts me...

  • Robert||

    Textbooks are a racket no matter how you look at them.

  • ||

    I know my griping about what I perceive to be eyeroll-inducing, pretentious writing doesn't really contribute to the discussion, but I need to say that "typical ruin-fetishism" is the stupidest chain of English words I've ever seen.

  • ||

    If the city collected on an insurance policy on the building and contents when they burned then selling the building "as-is" was a sensible decision.

    More troubling, IMO, are the records and books left behind in unsecured and improperly protected closed school buildings.

    That type of mismanagement makes me suspect that it is entirely likely that the Book Depository was underinsured.

  • ||

    Textbooks are a racket no matter how you look at them.

    My role around here seems to be posting marginally interesting links that are only tangentially related to the thread. In that spirit, Feynman on textbooks.

    Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

    Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

  • alisa||

    When I was in fifth grade, my math textbooks had an essay section with questions like
    "If math was a color, what would it be?"
    I can't fathom the thought process of the people who write these things.

    Something is screwy with the whole educational establishment -- the textbook writers, the administrators, the education departments. I worked with some public school teachers, trying to get certified for math, and none of them could add fractions. These are not stupid people -- nobody who can be parent, policeman, and therapist to fifty kids is stupid -- but they have no education.

  • ||

    That type of mismanagement makes me suspect that it is entirely likely that the Book Depository was underinsured.

    Dunno about Detroit Public Schools, but the city is self insured. I'll try to find out though.

  • ||

    Something is screwy with the whole educational establishment
    ...

    they have no education.


    They have education degrees; that's the problem.

  • ||

    Warty, Thank you for the link. I really mean that. Richard Feynman is a rare bird, a distinguished scientist who can write well. That diatribe against textbook publishers should be required reading for school board members. Unfortunately, most wouldn't get the point.

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