After several Bulloch County Board of Education members reported hearing from teachers and parents about a lack of enough books for students to take home, two members voted against tentative approval of the school system’s budget.
However, the budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1, was tentatively approved Thursday, 5-2 with one member absent, and can now be advertised for final adoption.
The budget includes general fund payouts of $74.6 million and revenues of roughly $74.5 million. That’s a 4 percent increase in spending over last year’s $71.7 million projection, but a 9 percent increase in revenue.
One spending area that is being decreased is the departmental budget for teaching and learning. Board member Anshul Jain noted a decrease of about $80,000 in a line item for books, from a little more than $420,000 this year to $340,000.
“Why are we reducing the sum of money that is being allocated to the purchase of books?” Jain asked.
Dr. Mary Felton, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, answered in terms of the system’s move into Georgia’s teaching frameworks for the Common Core State Standards.
“When we went to Common Core, we’re not purchasing textbooks,” Felton said. “Normally when people think of textbooks, you think of those thick, heavy books that kids carry around. Well, under this program … we use like novels, individual books.”
Buying books to fit with Common Core swelled the books budget for 2014. Now, some of that has been done.
“Going into next year, we shouldn’t have to purchase as many books because we did a lot of purchasing in the reading-language arts and math this current year, so we’re anticipating that we won’t need as much,” Felton said.
That answer didn’t satisfy Jain, who described a problem she said is chronic and pervasive.
“With all due respect, I disagree that we have enough textbooks,” she said. “There are teachers teaching with a single novel for the entire class. That’s not a scenario that is in a single grade or a single school. That is countywide.”
Jain contrasted the cut in book funding to a $6,000 increase in the department’s travel and supplies funding, which Felton said will be needed as content-area specialists go to the schools to assist teachers.
The exchange between Jain and Felton launched a 40-minute discussion among board members and administrators, touching on the shifting importance of books in the classroom. It also led to a suggestion by Superintendent Charles Wilson that the school budget-making process itself may need to evolve.
With Common Core, teachers are using excerpts from nonfiction books and novels more often than in the past, which could explain some instances when the actual book is not provided to all students.
Of course, online books and downloads are also increasingly available, leaving school leaders to decide how much money to put into printed books, Felton said.
Jain acknowledged this, too, but said she believes books in hand are still important for some students’ learning styles.
“Perhaps you can have textbooks for science and math online, but as for novels, there are children who learn differently,” she said. “But they’re asked to sit in their classes and look at the Smart Board for the entire year, and they cannot bring that novel home, but they’re expected to learn, they’re expected to achieve, and that’s not fair.”
Board member Cheri Wagner suggested that the focus should be on making materials available in a variety of formats to meet students’ differing needs “and not purchasing textbooks in a transition that we may not use in a year or two.”
Administrators acknowledged that books sometimes are not available for logistical reasons, not related to evolving technology. When books are ordered, as many were this year, schools have to wait for publishers to ship them.
“Some things are coming in now,” Felton said. “So those things are paid for, so remember that we paid for them with last year’s budget.”
The board had heard the explanations before and thought them reasonable, but continues to hear the concerns from teachers and from parents, such as at the community forum earlier this year at Statesboro High School, said member Mike Herndon.
“Where does the buck stop?” he asked. “Does it stop with us, does it stop with you, does it stop with the principals?”
He then apologized for directing this question to Felton, who was hired in January.
“I think we’re all responsible,” she said. “We have to be responsive to the needs of the students and the teachers.”
Board member Mike Sparks said he, too, hears complaints from parents about no books coming home.
“We’re constantly talking about parent involvement, getting parents involved, and we’re dropping the ball …” Sparks said. “I guess I’m old school, but if they don’t have a textbook, how do we expect their parents to help them at home?”
Wilson said that teachers should inform their principals if they don’t have the needed materials. But board Chairman Maurice Hill said he hears from teachers who say they write requests and are told by administrators that “we can’t fund it.”
Some additional needs may need to be fleshed out when school improvement plans are updated after test scores arrive this summer, said Monica Lanier, the assistant superintendent for organizational effectiveness.
“Right now, you’re cutting the budget, and if those teachers come back and say, ‘We need this,’ how are you going to fix it then, because the money’s already allotted,” Hill said.
The annual budget, Wilson noted, is a legal requirement, but he suggested that, in keeping with the school system’s new “needs-based” approach, a budget that could be adjusted during the year would be more appropriate.
“Functional organizations don’t use static budget processes like this,” Wilson said. “We’re just doing this because it’s state law. We don’t have to be bound to this. What we need to be looking at is, like a lot of other organizations, a rolling budget cycle.”
Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown had presented the budget for tentative approval so that final approval could follow at the June 26 meeting.
The increased revenue over last year’s budget comes mostly from a $4 million partial restoration of state funding after previous years’ cutbacks. No local tax increase is involved, as the $79,308 projected deficit will barely dent the school system’s $18.2 million general fund balance.
Wilson said he would need either tentative approval or a spending resolution for July in the absence of a budget.
Herndon made the motion for tentative approval. Board member Dr. LeVon Wilson seconded, and the motion passed with Jain and Hill opposed and Steve Hein absent.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.