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Mark Gardner | Books, Life in the Classroom, Literacy | October 14, 2012

The Budget

5

Sale booksAnother invisible: the budget. I spend a lot of time on amazon.com as part of my job. As chair of the English department, I have keep up the inventory of our resources--a key resource, of course, is our store of books. Every student at my school is required to take an English class, and my department budget works out to be about $1.80 per student per year. Granted, once you buy a book you can use it multiple times--but books also wear out, and our department budget also has to cover, among other things, basic supplies like paper, staples, dry erase markers, and the other necessities that my 18 full- or part-time English teachers usually end up buying out of their own pocket when the department supply runs out around mid-November.

When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap. In a dream world, I'd buy library-bound hardcover copies of each novel, which start at about $20 per copy. Scratch that: in a dream world, I'd supply all of my students with e-readers wherein they can interact with, annotate, and easily carry their texts. 

But a class set is 34 copies of a text. At 20 bucks a pop plus tax and shipping, I'm spending almost a third of my entire department budget just for one class set of one book for one grade level. So I go to amazon and place 34 orders for 34 used paperbacks so that each, with shipping, is less than six bucks. Sometimes I can hit a deal and get a whole box new for that cheap, but it depends on the title. These wear out after a few years of being passed from class to class, even though I wrap the books in contact seal. We need them for today's students, so putting off the purchase until tomorrow won't suffice and clear plastic wrap will.

We already stretch our resources: there's almost never more than one teacher teaching a book at a given time, and as soon as they finish, they move the box of books down the hall so the next teacher can begin. When a kid doesn't return a book, they have to replace it either with money or a new copy. We make due with single class sets for multiple sections of students so in many cases there are not enough copies for a student to take home to read.

I looked into e-readers, which looked like a great deal at first. But the costs there ended up compounding: we'd have to buy the e-readers, of course, but we'd also have to purchase electronic copies of the books. These turned out to be the cost (or more) of a new paperback--per title, per student. We'd essentially have to re-purchase our entire inventory except for the Shakespeare plays that are public domain and free on the web. For just my department, that endeavor would mean an initial investment of close to half a million dollars to achieve the ideal. My budget is about .07% of that, so if I dedicated my entire budget each year toward that shift... I don't even want to do that math.

So I head to amazon.com and piecemeal an order for used copies of our anchors. The golden rule: if the cost of the book exceeds the cost to ship it, I pass. Then, over the next two months, the books will trickle in from all over the country. It isn't efficient, and we don't end up with the best materials. It isn't how I'd like to do it, but that's the way to make the budget stretch.

Comments

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The ordering as an invisible--Mark, your post made me think about science ordering and equipment, and I am now putting together my own post on this!

I hear you, Mark. I'm having to make do with 24 math textbooks for my class of 28. You do what you can.

I think we're at a point with funding where the discrepancy among expecation and resources is being felt.

If you choose to teach children who live in poverty, you're choosing to stretch budget gaps, spend your weekends repairing fragile paperbacks with clear packing tape, and make do.

If you choose to teach children whose parents can supplement and support their child's education, you can make a "wish list," ask students to purchase their own materials, and probably have a PTA robust enough to give you a nice reimbursement every year.

It's lunacy.

The out-of-pocket spending many teachers do is definitely invisible.

All these gaps have to be closed, whether it is paper, books, science kits, enough teachers, whatever.

This summer we had to replace the roof on our house... it was weak, leaking, old, and so soft in places that the contractor wouldn't even walk on it. It cost my wife and I a pretty penny, and our monthly budget is now the tightest it has ever been--we had to finance it (borrow from our future) in order to make it happen. This means I haven't personally purchased anything other than gas for my car since mid-August...there is no room for extras...we chose a roof over halloween costumes, a few fancy coffees a month, some new school clothes and christmas presents, or even little things...I asked my wife if I could bake some peanut-butter cookies this afternoon, but was told no, that peanut butter was too expensive for that.

There are obvious difference between a household and school system, so I know this metaphor isn't super strong. I feel like, too often, schools have to resort to blue tarps and old tires rather than a new roof. My wife and I reworked our budget and took on debt to make sure that the problem with our roof didn't get worse. Would blue tarps and old tires have kept the roof from leaking? Maybe on a superficial level it could be a possible stop-gap. Every time I have to scratch together pennies just to get enough beat-up copies of a novel (because we need it now and beat-up is what my building can afford), I feel like I'm throwing a tarp on the roof. Without the resources, it is hard to get the best--or even the acceptable.

To hear policy makers talk, some say that we need to make better use of our resources. Sure, but to actually fix things will require more than reallocation of our current funding. Reallocation couldn't fix my roof, a difficult investment did. It frustrates me when I hear how "throwing money at a broken school system" is a bad idea--but the reality, to me, is that if we want to see change happen, and if we want our students to be well prepared, we need to be willing to invest in something better than old tires and blue tarps to fix our leaky roof.

Ouch! You are right on, especially in this statement of yours, "When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap."

My students are reading Of Mice and Men next month. I need to make sure we have enough books. How can our students delve into a book unless they can hold it; how can they read the book unless they can take it home?

I spent last week looking at the invisibles in my school and the one I came up with is similar to yours. Mine involved Paper, but is about resources. I wonder if we are at a point in the school year where the discrepancy among Expectation and Resources starts to be felt.

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