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School librarians are known for their ability to stretch the limits of their budgets to meet the needs of students. Some, like Holly Ristau, a media specialist for Mahnomen (MN) Public Schools who spends $600 of her own money each year to purchase books, say they must tap their own resources to deliver basic services. Hopefully, such personal largesse will be required less often, as, according to School Library Journal’s latest spending survey, the budget picture is looking up.
On average, school library annual budgets climbed nearly 20 percent for the 2015–16 school year, to $8,315. That’s up from $6,970 in 2013–14. The median, too, reflected almost a 20 percent bump: $5,380 for the 2015–16 school year, up from $4,500 two years prior.
Don Casey’s principal allocated $1,500 for him to buy 52 nonfiction books about the states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico in March 2015. But there was one condition: Casey, the librarian at Arrowhead Elementary School in Billings, MT, had to spend the money in one day. He made the purchase by the last bell.
Casey didn’t expect another bump this school year. But Billings Public Schools raised elementary school library budgets by $3 a student—from $5 for each child to $8—the first increase in 15 years. For Casey that translated into $625 more for his school library.
“It’s helpful having that extra $3 a student,” says Casey, Arrowhead’s librarian for the past five years, and in his 17th year with the district.
Yet funding levels remain far below 2010–11, when school library budgets averaged $10,348 and the median, $7,000. Furthermore, the nearly 800 school librarians who responded to SLJ’s survey in January 2016 say they believe their budgets will fall an average of 1.8 percent in 2016–17. Six percent of respondents report that they have no funding at all—with twice as many librarians in urban schools stating they work without money.
“The district allots no money to the library,” says Sue Laubersheimer, a school librarian at Lanphier High School in Springfield, IL. “The primary funding comes from the school budget, and this may be in peril due to district and state budget issues.”
The majority, 98 percent, of school librarians report having complete control over how they spend their money. Much of that is being allocated to nonfiction—likely a reaction to the requirements of the Common Core standards. Elementary schools in particular saw an uptick, with 42 percent of school librarians in K–5 schools reporting they are buying more nonfiction than in previous years. Some high schools are also finding they have more money for nonfiction.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I found that the library budget would be significantly increased for the ’15–’16 school year,” says Lisa Hubler, a librarian at Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst, OH. “My principal is supportive of the library and aware of the need for an increase in spending for nonfiction sources in response to the Common Core.”
Digital nonfiction use also appears to be growing. Educators are dedicating funds to purchase online reference sources, choosing digitized options over print. About one third, or 32 percent, of reference materials in all schools are now digital, compared to six percent just five years ago, according to SLJ’s survey. As some respondents noted, accessing these online databases is easier, not to mention the fact that students and teachers are simply more comfortable using digital sources now.
“Databases seem to be more user friendly,” says Deborah Jordan, the library media specialist at Walpole (MA) High School. “Teachers and students use them more readily, probably because they like searching the Internet, and search[ing] a variety of formats, where the ebooks only search one source at a time.”
Still, Jordan cautions that students need “both print and electronic.”
Judith O’Brien concurs. “There is a perception that libraries need less funding due to the availability of ebooks and the Internet,” says the librarian at Davisville Middle School in North Kingstown, RI. “Yet research shows that teens still prefer books in hard copy rather than ebooks for recreational reading.”
Still, ebook spending is hardly disappearing. School librarians spent, on average, $1,014 in 2014–15 on ebooks—with 21 percent saying they plan to spend even more this year. The majority, 63 percent, say they have no plans to allocate more money to digital books, and 16 percent of school librarians say they’ll spend less on ebooks.
Educators may be taking advantage of free or lower-cost options instead, namely OER (Open Educational Resources). Thirty percent of school librarians currently use OER—which can range from lesson plans to ebooks from sites such as Khan Academy, a resource mentioned by several in the survey.
While one-quarter of school librarians aren’t aware of these options (most often those at elementary schools), high school librarians are adopting OER in large numbers, with 42 percent using them with their students.
Making do with maker labs
Maker activities are a top trend among school librarians. But spending in this area skews toward traditional materials like LEGO and craft supplies rather than robotics kits, according to the survey. Across the board, the majority of K–12 schools weighted their budgets toward these items rather than tech such as circuit boards, Raspberry Pi, or the like. That divide was most acute at elementary schools, where just 28 percent of librarians purchased digital kits.
Maker spaces are a luxury that many school librarians say they can’t afford. When there is extra money, they have to be judicious on how they allocate their budget, reported some respondents. Others fund maker labs only with the help of grant money.
Victoria Sammartano would love to offer a maker space to her elementary students at Floral Park-Bellerose Union Free School District, a pre-K–6 district in New York, but, she says, she lacks the money. Susan Pennington, a library media specialist at Southeast High School in Springfield, IL, also wishes she could run maker space projects, but says she can’t justify allocating funds for those activities. Kate Neff, the media specialist at Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, FL, needs to spend the money she has on books and other educational materials, rather than items to kit out a maker space, she says.
Abby Cornelius at Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, KS, stocked her maker space with two 3-D printers plus $5,000 on other materials—but only because of awards the library media specialist has been able to earn her school library. Regular funding is not something she can count on—for anything.
“Our budget has been cut the last two years without our knowledge,” she says. “We go to spend money only to find that the line items ‘have not been renewed.’”
Struggling to address special needs
There’s a particular lack of funding when it comes to materials for students with special needs. Nearly all schools—97 percent—report that at least a portion of their student population can be characterized as struggling readers or having some learning disability.
But wherever a school is located—and whether it’s public or private—a budget to support every student with special needs is rare.
“My entire population is students with learning disabilities,” says Michelle Levy, the librarian at Eton Academy in Birmingham, MI. “There is never enough funding for everything that we want. I must always figure out what is needed right now. For instance, this year I have three high school students who are at a very low reading level (elementary levels). I have only a few books for them (high school books at very low levels) but I should purchase more.”
Four out of five schools, 81 percent, serve English Language Learners (ELL). Yet most school librarians don’t have the funds they need to support these students.
Fewer than half of the schools surveyed say they have adequate funding to provide ELL students—and those who are struggling to read or have learning disabilities—with the materials educators believe are required.
“Due to our population, we must have Spanish and bilingual books,” says Michelina Oliva, the library media specialist at the pre-K–5 Liberty Park Elementary School in Greenacres, FL, which has about 1,000 students. “There is never enough to cover the cost for what we need.”
Yet, school librarians persist. Springfield Southeast High School’s library media specialist Pennington recalls several years prior when she had $2,000 remaining in her budget—and the district took it away to pay bills. Every year she advocates for her budget, which is a mixture of funding from her school’s principal and grant money.
But Pennington worries about her students, especially as public library branches have closed in her community. Also, some of her students reside in unincorporated villages and so are required to pay $85 for a library card, which many cannot afford, she says. So Pennington tries to come in during the summer for a few hours every week to give students access to books and computers, and gives away donated books or others she can find at the end of each semester.
School librarians continue to advocate for their budgets—and the value of their positions and their services. In the end, they know that what they’re truly advocating for is their students. “Reading is so crucial to learning and development,” says Pennington. “I want all students to have books in their hands!”