Big Fish, Small Budget: Insights from SLJ's Spending Survey

School librarians see declining budgets, but many have influence over spending, our survey shows.

Illustrations by Alex Eben Meyer

School and district administrators and board members are most often responsible for setting library budgets, but that doesn’t mean librarians don’t have a say in what they receive or how the money is spent, according to the results of the latest School Library Journal School Spending Survey Report.

Almost half of librarians—46 percent—said they have some influence over the size of their library budgets, and while the same percentage of librarians responded that they are required to receive approval for every purchase, only 11 percent said they occasionally receive questions about their purchases.

“I discuss with my principal just to be sure we are on the same page about goals for the media center,” Suzette Calderon, librarian at Wellington High School in the School District of Palm Beach County, FL, wrote in the open-ended section of the survey.

About a third of the respondents said they also have an influence on purchases made outside of the library at their schools, and a full 23 percent said they provide input regarding purchases at the district level.

A book challenge or a change in leadership, however, can have a big impact on what perhaps used to be a routine approval process. “Approval for every library purchase is new this year because of a book challenge in our school district,” wrote one respondent.

Some librarians reported decreases in library budgets following principal turnover; others said they saw their budgets for books or other equipment and materials go up.

“After 27 years with a supportive principal, a new principal was hired this year,” one librarian said. “I am committed to educating him; time will tell.”

Overall budgets decline

While the survey questions related to librarians’ input into the budgeting process were new this year, the Spending Survey also includes questions to capture trend data on topics such as overall spending and purchases of fiction compared to nonfiction.

Compared to the 2015–16 school year, the last time SLJ conducted this survey, overall library budgets have dropped 17 percent, from $8,315 to $6,907, and are down from over $10,300 since 2010–11. (Note that different schools respond to the spending survey each iteration.) Respondents to this year’s survey were asked to estimate the change in budget they received since last year, and they reported a significantly smaller drop in budget size: only 0.4 percent. Sixty-eight percent said their budget did not change since 2016–17.

Next to the library/media center budget, book fairs provide the second largest source of revenue for libraries, especially at the elementary school level. Book fairs also make up a larger chunk of the budget in the U.S. West/Mountain region, compared to other areas. Almost all elementary school librarians report holding book fairs, and close to three-fourths of middle schools and one-fourth of high schools also host these fund-raisers.

In private schools, the average budget for library materials is at least twice that of public schools. But the sample of private schools also included a larger proportion of high schools, which have larger library budgets in general. Ten percent of respondents have no budget to spend.

“Our state no longer adequately funds public schools and it is so frustrating because my school doesn’t usually qualify for grants because our poverty level is not quite high enough, but we never have money to buy new books,” wrote Diane Stewart at Sharon Elementary School in the Iredell-Statesville (NC) School District. “All of our books are wearing out.”

Many librarians also provided feedback on the purchases they would make if funds were available. Author visits, ebooks, furniture, and, of course, updated collections were among the frequently mentioned items. One librarian in a district north of New York City said she would provide more programs for students if she could hire a chess tutor or a science/robotics tutor, and others wish they could hire an assistant.

“I would like to be able to do more for my students in terms of providing them with a collection that is not 35 years old, and provide them with opportunities for programs such as author visits,” said Cathy Pope, the librarian at Lincoln High School in Stockton, CA. “I would also like to have adequate staffing in order to spend more time at site libraries and to collaborate with teachers.”

Out-of-pocket spending

The fact that most educators dip into their own wallets to pay for educational materials and resources for their students drew considerable attention last fall before Congress and President Trump reached an agreement over the tax code in December. Some proposals called for eliminating the $250 annual deduction that teachers can claim for purchasing supplies, while other members of Congress recommended doubling it to $500. Ultimately, the $250 deduction stayed in the final bill signed by the president.

More than three-fourths of librarians reported that they spend their own money on their libraries, spending an average of $302 a year. The largest proportion of those who supplement their library budgets—40 percent—spend between $100 and $249, but 19 percent reported spending at least $500 throughout the school year. Librarians are primarily spending this money on books, but some also listed craft or maker supplies, decorations, and prizes or incentives for students among their purchases.

“We are limited to spending money to four categories labeled: supplies, subscriptions, equipment, books,” explained Brenda Kramer of Browning Middle School in Montana. “I have had to spend my own money from my paycheck to supply the library with book ends, shelf markers, 8x11 instructional display stands.”

Fiction purchases up

Despite Common Core standards placing a greater emphasis on students gaining skills in analyzing and comprehending nonfiction texts, libraries are increasingly spending more on fiction than they are on nonfiction books, the findings showed.

In the 2013–14 school year, librarians said fiction texts made up 53 percent of their collections. Now they say 59 percent of their collection is fiction. Nonfiction texts have dropped from 47 percent to 41 percent.

Mary Reilley-Clark, the librarian at San Elijo Middle School in San Marcos, CA, said she’s “reluctant to replace nonfiction because it is outdated so quickly.” She encourages students and teachers to use public library databases and has worked with the local public library to provide every student with a digital library card.

Partnerships between school and public libraries were another topic explored in the study. Ranking their collaboration with the public library on a scale of 0 to 10—with 0 representing no partnership and 10 indicating complete integration—only 18 percent of librarians put their level of partnership in the seven-to-nine range. Half of all respondents answered with a range of one to three, and four percent of the respondents said they have not partnered with their public library at all.

Expected spending on maker supplies

Out of all the categories in which librarians make purchases, respondents were the most likely to say they expect to spend more next year on maker and craft supplies, reflecting the growth in these areas of their libraries. Librarians spent an average of $913 on these items last school year, which is far less than what they spent on books ($5,210), databases ($3,652), and hardware and devices ($2,715). But 22 percent predict they will spend more on maker materials next year.

Last fall, SLJ’s School Maker Survey showed that since 2014, maker activities have increased by four percent at the elementary and middle school levels, with 55 percent of elementary school libraries and 61 percent of middle school libraries providing maker activities for students. The results also showed that in more than 90 percent of the schools with maker programs, librarians are involved in organizing maker activities.

The areas in which librarians say they expect to spend less next year include print books, DVDs/Blu-rays, furniture, and especially periodicals.

Librarians were also asked about the role that digital resources play in giving students access to books, audio, and resources for conducting research. Eighty-five percent of librarians responded that they have access to encyclopedias, subscription services, ebooks, streaming services, and other electronic resources through their state or local district, with schools in the South having the most access.

The open educational resources (OER) movement has the potential to meet educators’ needs for updated and often free curriculum resources, and librarians have an important role in pointing teachers to high-quality materials, writes Joyce Valenza, assistant professor of teaching at Rutgers University, in a blog post on SLJ’s "NeverEnding Search."

“The opportunity, especially for school libraries with little or no budgets, is to leverage this free content to promote access and equity, to create new user-friendly collections, and to embed the best into instruction school-wide,” she writes.

According to the survey, 36 percent of librarians reported being aware of OER but not using OER yet, while only five percent said they are using OER. At the elementary level, OER are more likely to be used for lesson plans, curriculum, and activities. In high school, open ebooks and textbooks are the more common use of OER.

Grateful for school and community support

While many commented that they feel their roles are undervalued or that they are expected only to be teaching students about technology, others said that their district or school leaders have prioritized libraries.

“I am proud to work in a school that values its library as one of the most important aspects of the school. I know it is not like this everywhere,” Molly Sloan of Portland (OR) Jewish Academy wrote, adding that she used to work in a school district that eliminated its librarians. “I know that I may be the only school librarian my colleagues, parents, and students ever experience. Someday my students will be voters and perhaps school board members. I hope that they will not be able to imagine a school without a library, and of course, a rock star librarian.”

Sally James, the librarian at South Hillsborough Elementary School, near San Mateo, CA, said that while her district leaders value and fund libraries, parents are also a large part of having a thriving library program.

“I could not conduct the variety of programs that I do without the support of the parent community,” she wrote. “The district’s support begins the process, but the parents’ support brings the depth and breadth to the programs.”

About the Survey

The survey link was sent in late October to approximately 16,300 school librarian emails. A reminder was sent in November to those who did not click through the first time. Just over 1,000 librarians responded, for a six percent response rate. The results were weighted to reflect the element­ary, middle, and high school mix in the United States.
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Tricia Snyder

Can you share the questions that were asked on the survey? I am working to compile comparable data in my region in order to advocate. Thank you!

Posted : Apr 13, 2018 11:15



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