A textbook case of government waste: A WAFF 48 News special report

By Eric Sollman - bio | email

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - A state legislator in Madison County is asking Governor Bob Riley to open an investigation after WAFF 48 News questioned how the state of Alabama buys textbooks.

Books or CD's on the state of Alabama's approved list have a numerical identity. This is known as an ISBN number.

Looking at several dozen books online, huge price difference between what the state pays and the lowest possible price become apparent.

How huge? Look at License to Drive, one of the state's primary drivers education books. When the investigation began, the book was listed at $76.95 per copy. The cost for the book online was $25.99.

And check out Pacemaker Basic English Composition. Your tax dollars pay $55.99 per copy, nearly $30 more than the price we found online.

Perhaps the most drastic economic example comes in the form of a Spanish learning aid. This Spanish interactive CD-ROM disk for grades 9-12 is contracted at $197.

We found the same game on the internet for just $1.49.

Cynthia Brown is the Director of Curriculum for the Alabama State Department of Education. She said she's responsible for all activities relative to textbooks. She said the state is supposed to have the best deal.

Brown said the bid price the state gets must be the lowest price in the nation, and the same price for all states the publisher sells to. If the price drops during the time of the contract, the publisher must offer the lowest price.

So how did we find lower prices with one click of the mouse? Who's responsible for making sure the state is actually getting the best price?

"We look at it basically when the particular publisher has notified us primarily, or believe it or not when somebody else notices something. But usually we don't have to do that because of our relationship with the publishers," said Brown.

"The buyer dealing with the seller is not the way you get an independent assessment on price and cost," said State Representative Phil Williams.

Williams has 18 years of experience as a contract negotiator for the Department of Defense.

"They have a financial conflict of interest. They would have an interest in charging as much as they can for a book, that's the free market system, you can't blame them for that." said Williams.

The state still believes they receive the lowest price for many reasons. Brown cited free shipping, the ability to buy in bulk, and the assurance of the best book for their buck.

State officials also said prices online can't always be trusted.

"I think there is more than meets the eye there," said Brown.

The book that the state has been paying $76.95 for when we found License to Drive for almost $50 less has come down in price since WAFF 48 News started asking questions.

Just one day before the interview with Brown, the state's price for the book dropped $20.

Alabama tax dollars were paying the more expensive retail price, and not the whole sale price for years. Officials said the state has been reimbursed $6,861.11.

Williams said he is sending a letter to Governor Riley asking an audit team to look at the textbook review process.

When questioned over the price discrepancies, the state said individual school districts can check for a better deal. Right now, they can also buy used textbooks.

Not all school districts were aware of this.

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