Textbook sticker shock
By Diane Rado, Tribune staff reporter. Staff reporters Ana Beatriz Cholo and Darnell Little contributing.
In Illinois, books that cost $600 online can be $800 at school as fees and markups drive up the prices
By the time Loryn Kogan got out of the New Trier Township High School Bookstore in August, the bill was nearly $800 for her two sons' textbooks--materials that are free to students in most states.
What disturbed the North Shore mother the most, however, was that she later found the same books at Amazon.com for nearly $200 less. She quickly bought the books online and returned the others to New Trier.
Kogan didn't know it, but the district contracts with a private company to run its bookstore and allows the firm to mark up new books by 20 percent over cost.
The contract is unusual because private booksellers usually are found on college campuses. But markups as high as 25 percent are not uncommon in some of Illinois' largest public school districts, a Tribune investigation has found.
High schools in the Oak Park and River Forest, Glenbard and Elmhurst school districts, among others, also mark up books sold to students, though they run their own bookstore operations.
According to state law, districts can charge extra to cover shipping and handling, but how those costs are defined is in question.
Districts say they can tack on the cost of salaries for staff involved in bookstore operations, saying that fits into the definition of "handling." But schools already collect local property taxes to pay salaries for school employees.
The law is "far from crystal clear" on the matter, said Jonathan Furr, general counsel of the Illinois State Board of Education.
In general, Illinois law seeks to control costs to ensure the best deals for students, he said.
"I certainly think the state board is going to have concerns about potential abuses in this area, and I think we would be interested in looking at the specific facts of these cases and reviewing whether or not those costs should be allowed," Furr said.
Illinois pays for public education mostly with local property taxes, rather than state dollars, and the $29.1 million state budget for textbooks has been flat to declining since 2000-01.
With most districts struggling with deficits and voters rejecting tax increases, nearly all districts rely on parents to buy their children's books or pay fees to offset book purchases.
Too few books, and they're old
Even with parents' help, however, districts are struggling with book shortages and texts that are outdated and worn, a Tribune investigation found in a survey of 50 districts of varying wealth and size across all regions.
Illinois collects more textbook revenue from parents than any other state, about $74 million in 2002-03, according to the most recent federal data. Twenty-eight states collect no textbook fees.
Updated figures from the Illinois State Board of Education show districts collecting $87 million from book fees or sales in 2004-05, three times more than the state provides for textbooks.
The figure is likely an underestimate because it excludes some districts, such as New Trier, where the private Follett Higher Education Group had sales of about $1.3 million, according to the district. Chicago Public Schools also did not report book revenue because individual schools collect their own fees.
Elmhurst District 205 did not report $548,186 from high school book sales because it was accounted for separately and excluded from state financial reports, said Patricia Palmere, assistant superintendent for finance. Students got $169,888 in credits for future purchases by selling books back, she said.
Districts typically have such buyback programs. They also waive book fees for impoverished students and offer installment plans so parents to spread out book payments.
Still, some parents are shocked by the price tag for attending a public high school.
Prices add up for parents
Laura Font paid $442.26 for her freshman son's books this year at Elmhurst's York Community High School; that didn't include other fees that pushed the bill to more than $500.
"When they totaled it up, I couldn't believe what it cost," said Font, a public school teacher in DuPage County. "If you have two or three high school students, you're talking about $1,500 to start school, and you haven't even bought shoes or clothes."
Not all parents pay that much. More than 500 districts, most of them Downstate, reported collecting $50 or less per student for textbooks on average in 2004-05, according to state figures.
Fees are steeper around Chicago, with about 70 districts, mostly in the six-county suburban area, collecting at least $100 per studenton average. A dozen districts reported at least $200 per student for textbooks, though some said their revenue included other fees unrelated to books. The Illinois Constitution states that education in public schools "shall be free," interpreted by courts to mean free classes and instruction--but not free books.
Elsewhere, education officials were surprised that Illinois charges for books. "That is illegal in California; textbooks have to be free," said Tom Adams, a top curriculum official at the California Department of Education.
Illinois educators said books tend to be replaced more often when districts charge parents rather than rely on state funds.
Cheryl Witham, chief financial officer in Oak Park and River Forest high school district, said she has worked outside of Illinois and has found that when fees weren't charged "over time, that curriculum became stale."
Districts defend markups
Her district marks up new books by 25 percent for shipping and handling, which she said can include bookstore employee salaries, based on the advice of the school district's attorney. Elmhurst District 205 has a 25 percent markup to cover overhead at its bookstore.
Glenbard High School District 87 in DuPage County has a 20 percent markup on new books, and Township High School District 113 in Lake County charges a 15 percent markup, plus shipping costs, on new books. District 113 officials said they don't exceed 15 percent because of a lawsuit in the late 1970s over unreasonable charges for books, and they cap book prices at $85, regardless of cost.
District officials stressed that their markups are over discounted prices they get from publishers, so students should still be able to get textbooks for less than retail prices.
But Kogan, of Wilmette, was able to find better prices on Amazon.com.
She said she bought mostly new books for her sons at New Trier, because used books get snapped up quickly and sometimes aren't available. She wanted to bring the books home before shopping online to make sure she could find exact matches.
Kogan found several better deals, she said, including a $63.49 advanced biology book on Amazon.com that cost her $98.95 used at New Trier.
Follett, which operates college bookstores around the nation, pays New Trier a $40,000 annual commission to operate on campus, said Donald Goers, the district's assistant superintendent for business.
After the Tribune began asking questions about the arrangement, Goers said it may be re-examined.
"We were trying to look for a novel approach" for bookstore operations, he said. "We do need to go back and re-evaluate to see if this is still the best way."