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BELLTONES: Sourcing the Crowd--Common-Sense Measures for Hard Times

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Jan 1, 2012
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I may have mentioned in a previous column that I have a soundtrack running through my head most of the time. Without me asking it to, it automatically starts up appropriate tunes for whatever I am doing or thinking about. Thus, if I see kids playing baseball, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” starts playing in my head. This can be annoying because I never ask for it, and some of the songs are irritating. These days a song that keeps repeating is “Hard Times Come Again No More,” written by Stephen Foster and popularized by Bob Dylan. The Nanci Griffith version comes on in my head because that’s the one I have. Give it a listen. It is more than appropriate for what’s going on in our country today.

In my own state, Texas, we were told for years that we were different from everybody else and that our state coffers were in great shape. Governor Rick Perry campaigned on this claim in 2010. He loved to say, “We are not like California! Due to my leadership we are in great shape!” Well, he was half right. We found out 3 months after sending him back for another term that, indeed, we were not like California. We were worse off financially than that and most other states. Before Christmas 2010, we felt relatively optimistic about dodging the economic bullets that bombarded other state educational systems. Then in January, the truth gradually emerged. We learned that the State of Texas was broke. At least that was the new mantra.

Schools, social services, and other governmental agencies were told to prepare for large budget cuts just to keep operating. Sadly, many schools and districts took the first and most obvious choice for cutting funding, that of cutting positions. Librarians, technology specialists, counselors, nurses, and classroom teachers were put on notice that their jobs were in jeopardy. Even before and certainly after the end of that school year, many people lost their jobs. Those left standing were then given extra duties, larger classes, responsibility for multiple campuses, and other challenges.

The legislature compounded the pain by not floating a budget until way into June, by which time many were already out of jobs that might have been saved. The resulting budget was not as bad as it could have been, and I am cynical enough to think this was slow in coming so that more educators would be laid off. I know this borders on too much information about Texas, but I believe that it will sound familiar to residents of many other states. Furthermore, many educators have been told that the 2011–2012 year will bring even more woes. In view of that, what is to be done?

What Is to Be Done?

I no longer work in a public school, but I asked myself what I would do if I were facing dramatic budget cuts. I know I would try to cut library spending where it would cause the least harm to my patrons, both faculty and students. I made a list of some ideas that popped into my head but knew that my thinking was likely dated, since I left school librarianship more than 10 years ago and moved to higher ed. So I put out another poll to my usual subjects, listserv members from TLC, LM_NET, and EDTECH and asked for input on how they were cutting spending. Here is a link to the full results of that poll:

The first thing I wanted to know was what people were doing regarding equipment—purchasing, repair, and management. I got some interesting responses, several of which follow:

“We had planned to install projectors and document cameras in all classrooms. This has been put on hold. I have had to purchase new or repair outdated overheads instead.” My reaction to this is that one-size-fits-all purchases, such as outfitting all classrooms with the same equipment, are often wasteful. I often hear stories of [ smartboards] sitting unused because the teachers never wanted them, and projectors sit idle because there is no money to replace bulbs. Some people simply will not use the devices because they have other preferences and teaching styles. Also, this may be heretical, but I think there can still be a place for overheads. They are cheap, easy to fix, simple to use, and do the job in many situations.

“Our district is moving toward BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and allowing the students to use their technology so we don’t have to keep upgrading so quickly.” I could write a whole column about why I think this is a great idea! I find it heartening that it is an idea I am hearing from many different sources. It was definitely favored by many attendees at the School Library Journal Leadership Summit (SLJ Summit) from which I recently returned. This common-sense action seems to be on everyone’s minds. Those denied access are often campaigning for it to be granted. If there is such a thing as a silver lining to every cloud, this qualifies in my opinion.

“We have been trying to get every piece of equipment repaired. We use the computers that are absolutely dead for parts to fix others. We also decided to stop buying printers and had our copy machines networked to the server. This saves on buying ink for multiple different types of machines.” Well done, I say! These sound like common-sense measures for good as well as hard times.

Several respondents mentioned using thin clients, with varying degrees of satisfaction. I had a thin client lab back in the late 1990s, and even with the more limited infrastructure that we had at the time, we found ways to use those computers. They were in a classroom adjoining the library, and I had newer computers on the library floor. I do think that they are worth a try with older computers, especially when the alternative is to discard them.

My next question was about software and online subscriptions. I did list a few options and then asked for additional comments. I readily confess that I had a secret hope here … and it seems to be granted. Here were the things I learned:

Half of the respondents said they have cut or are considering cutting Accelerated Reader (AR). In some cases, the program has been dropped entirely; in others, it has been scaled back. One of my ongoing criticisms of AR has always been cost. Every dollar spent there is a dollar not spent on books. To me, the prospect of some schools cutting AR would be a second silver lining to the gloomy budget clouds.

Many respondents reported jettisoning Microsoft Office in favor of alternatives such as OpenOffice or Google Docs. My old district moved to OpenOffice years ago. In my opinion, this cost-saving measure is a no-brainer. I have used both Microsoft Office and OpenOffice and find them close to interchangeable, and Google Doc’s continuous save and cloud storage are actually improvements over other options.

Other programs I listed and learned were being cut included Inspiration, Kidspiration, Kid Pix, Mavis Beacon Keyboarding Kidz, Print Shop, Study Island, and Math Blaster, with the higher counts going to Inspiration and Mavis. I know that if I were in my old job, I would reluctantly consider cutting Inspiration. It is hands-down my favorite program for mind-mapping and, indeed, for making all kinds of great visuals. But there are free alternatives including the improved drawing tools in office suites these days and online free Web 2.0 tools such as MindMeister.

Regarding other cuts, I was sad to learn that many schools are losing some or even all subscription databases. Many people seemed to say that they were not given input about this option. Denying students learning resources seems to me to be the last thing to consider cutting. As an aside, in Texas, any school student across the state can get a Houston Public Library Power Card and, thus, use the databases there. This type of resource is sure to exist in other states and is certainly something to explore.

Also unfortunate was the fact that many schools are postponing upgrades and/or maintenance of library automation programs. One person reported switching from Destiny to OPALS, an open source library automation program.

The next question was about other types of budget cuts employed by respondents’ schools and districts.

Forty pecent reported cuts to staff, mentioning support staff such as aides and also nurses, counselors, librarians, and technology specialists. In a few cases, administrative staff had been moved back to campuses, though this was not commonly reported.

In survey comments, I learned of other cuts such as eliminating travel to conferences, cutting maintenance costs, banning extra appliances such as clocks, lamps, microwaves, and refrigerators. One person said that only two wastebaskets were allotted for the library. Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of cutting waste by eliminating wastebaskets seems odd at best. One quotable participant said, “Our equipment is being held together by spit and [ band- aids].”

Several people reported that while positions were not cut, those opened by attrition were not being filled. In many places the graying of the profession of librarian persists, so this is very worrisome.

When I asked who makes the hard decisions about what to cut, 60% said district officials and 50% mentioned building administrators. In general, the changes came from above without a lot of input allowed. Several said committees had some say, but not one single person said that teachers as individuals had input to the decision-making process.

The last two questions were invitations for comments. First I asked for any bad stories of waste or good examples of frugality. Here are some of the responses:

“We have no money for library books, but our district still reimburses teachers for gym memberships.”

“Our 600 student campus has 2 lesson design coaches whose main jobs seem to be planning field trips and fun days for the students and running to Costco for ‘office snacks.’”

“In my opinion, our iPod [touch] initiative was a huge waste of money. Students are limited as to what they can do (can’t type a research paper, can’t create a presentation), so computers are still needed for most things. Also, the screens are too small to be effective and applications will not run that require certain software that is not compatible with Apple products (such as Flash). I wish we had the money back that we spent on those and could apply it toward laptops.” Too often I think purchases are made without enough research beforehand.

This sad statement, I fear, could come from many locations: “Feeling completely overwhelmed with the loss of my library aide last year, the loss of the Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS) this year, as well as bigger classes to accomodate, and more ITS type responsibilities, along with a full teaching schedule, 6 scheduled classes per day, as well as two additional duties besides being open every AM to accomodate student research and check out.”

Here is another comment that should resonate with just about everyone: “In my opinion all high-stakes testing and all prep for the tests is a waste of everything. There is no evidence that students under the tests are better educated or more prepared for post-secondary anything. My hope is that being so strapped for funds will force all of us to move to better, more creative, higher-level thinking outcomes for projects and exams.”

What should not be cut? I did not ask this question but am offering my own ideas. First, of course, I hate the cutting of positions. This may sound harsh, but I think too often this was an easy and lazy way to quickly bring down costs, while piling up human costs on students and faculty. Two people weighed in about staff development. One said, “I wish they would eliminate all staff development” and the other said, “I miss outside professional development the most. District trainings are geared more toward teachers.” I strongly believe that staff development is the last thing that should be cut. Cost-efficient options such as webinars and online tutorials abound. A big reason for waste and misuse is the lack of adequate training. Keep the staff development and concentrate on practical hands-on training for equipment already on campuses and for Web 2.0 resources. Finally, I hate to see book budgets cut. I write about technology a lot, but I love books too. In the best of all worlds, students would be able to access plenty of both ebooks and hard copies.

I told myself I would end this column on a positive note. What are possible good outcomes from our present hard times? One that I already mentioned was the common-sense and cost-free decision to let students use the state-of-the-art technology that they already have. The idea that a class has to pass around outdated cameras or line up to use a few computers when those same kids have great devices at their fingertips has seemed ridiculous to me for a long time. Another plus that I alluded to is again both free and common sense—the loosening of draconian filters so kids can use all the great free Web 2.0 tools that are out there. Similarly, filters should allow in as much authoritative information as they can on all topics, especially in view of cuts to subscription databases. The last thing I tell myself in an effort to cheer up is that these hard times will pass. We all know the pendulum swings of the economy. I am hoping against hope that Texas voters, and indeed voters in all states, will refrain from voting against their own interests in the future and instead send forth legislators who value education. Then maybe I will hear “Happy Days Are Here Again” start up in my head!

Contact Mary Ann at

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