Textbook funding on a “maintenance budget”

The Region 16 school district will spend about three times as much as Naugatuck Public Schools, per pupil, on textbooks in 2010-11.

Region 16, which serves 2,584 Beacon Falls and Prospect students this year, will spend $93,939, or approximately $36 per pupil, on textbooks in 2010-11. Naugatuck schools claim 4,767 students this year, and will spend $60,000, or about $12.50 per pupil, on textbooks next year.

The Region 16 district writes new curricula for various subject areas on a rotating basis—it takes four years to research, write and implement one, Superintendent Jim Agostine said—and buys books to support each new curriculum when it comes out. And the district can still afford to adopt books.

Its textbook funding will decrease by about 10 percent between the current fiscal year and 2010-11, but Agostine said the drop is due to the expected purchase of books cheaper than those bought in the current year.

By contrast, the Naugatuck school system adopts and purchases a new set of textbooks for a different subject area each year, Superintendent John Tindall-Gibson said. That way, each subject area receives updated texts every five to seven years.

But the borough school board has scaled back the textbook budget for the last two years in a wider effort to cut costs, and can no longer afford new textbook adoptions.

Funding for the textbooks line item dropped precipitously between 2008-09 and 2009-10, from $202,000 to $60,000. In the 2006-07 fiscal year, the textbook line item was funded at $323,000—more than five times its current level.

It remains funded at $60,000 in the 2010-11 Board of Education budget, which administrators will need to slash by another $600,000 before a final adoption.

Tindall-Gibson has characterized the $60,000 allocation as a “maintenance budget”—that is, enough capital to replace lost, stolen or worn out books, but not enough to purchase substantial new materials.

Naugatuck schools chief John Tindall-Gibson says the textbooks line-item, which is likely to be funded at $60,000 for 2010-11, is subsisting on a "maintenance budget."

“At $60,000, we’re not able to [adopt a new set of books],” he said. “At $60,000, we’d be able to replace books that get—I was going to say stolen, but who would steal a textbook, right?—books that get lost, or destroyed, or just get worn out. There might be some money in there if, at the high school, they were to open up a new civics course or something, and wanted to buy 35 civics books, you’d have enough money to do that.”

While acknowledging the difficulty of fully funding the account in coming years, Tindall-Gibson said the textbook allocation will need to be restored to previous levels in the near future.

“You can’t go more than a couple years without replenishing that budget, otherwise you will have outdated, inadequate textbooks,” he said. “So you know, that part of the budget needs to be restored at some point, or we need to make a plan to go forward without using textbooks.”

At the same time, he recognized that the school board hasn’t ruled out cutting more from the textbooks line, as it attempts to reconcile a $56.45 million allocation from the town with its initial request for $57.05 million.

Agostine, the Region 16 superintendent, said the district will purchase new social studies textbooks about Connecticut government, geography and geology for the fourth grade.

“Fortunately it was a modestly-priced textbook, but it fit our new curriculum in fourth grade and the state standards,” he said. But it’s not uncommon, he added, for the district to spend much more than the $94,000 it will spend next year on new books.

“There’s all kinds of needs in the system, there always is,” Agostine said. “You have to prioritize your needs and take a good, hard look. If a department chair or a principal comes to me and says, ‘We want to upgrade this textbook because it’s eight years old and we want the new edition,’ you think about that and you say, ‘Okay, what other needs are out there?’ You might find another very critical area where the book maybe has gone out of print, so you can’t even get replacements for it, so you say, ‘Keeping the total budget in mind here, we’re going to fund that one first, and we’ll slate yours for next year.’”

In terms of prioritization, Agostine, who studied biology as an undergraduate student, said he views science as being the subject area most commonly in need of updated texts. He cited an example of a concept he studied in college later being covered in an AP high-school class.

“I didn’t learn about Okazaki fragments in college until my senior year, in an advanced biochemistry class at UConn,” he said. “And here I was, 15 years later, and kids were learning this in high school biology. In the sciences, the relevance of the material is always evolving and changing rapidly.”

Contrarily, the content of some subject areas doesn’t change markedly from year to year, but the tools teachers use to teach that content may change.

Region 16 Superintendent Jim Agostine, pictured in a 2007 file photo, predicts "there will be a time, soon" when schools don't buy hard-copy textbooks in favor of web publishing tools.

“The problem in algebra, when the train leaves Boston, and the train leaves San Francisco, where do they meet, that problem may not change all that much from one book to another book,” Agostine said, “but like I say, it’s the other things that become important.”

“Algebra is always algebra, but there are different ways of teaching algebra,” Tindall-Gibson added. “As technological tools become more affordable and find their ways more and more into kids’ pockets and into classrooms, textbook manufacturers and textbook publishers write their textbooks to incorporate those kinds of things. So it’s not just text about algebra, but it’s also exercises that kids do, both at school and away from school.”

He and Agostine noted the increasing role of technology in the textbook publishing business, and Agostine even predicted that hard-copy textbooks may soon be a thing of the past.

“Nowadays, the delivery systems are changing. By that I mean that the technology resources that come with new texts are vastly improved from where they were before. … I have such high hopes for the Kindle [an e-reader] and for web-based textbooks, but I doubt the publishing companies are ready to give up the reins here, yet,” he said. “But there will be a time, soon, when we don’t purchase a hard copy of a textbook.”

Tindall-Gibson said the shift toward Internet publishing and an increasing emphasis on technology have played a part in the decision to draw down textbook funding.

“The textbook suppliers are kind of getting out of that business,” he said, “and a lot of that content is moving online, so while we’re willing to cut back in the textbook line, we’re not as willing to cut back in our technology line.”

On the effects of cuts to textbook funding in Naugatuck, Tindall-Gibson said it doesn’t yet appear to have had a negative impact, but “becomes problematic” as time goes on.

And anyway, the textbook account is far from being the only line item he views as underfunded in an exceptionally tight budget year.

“There are a whole host of things in our budget that are being funded at less than what we think is appropriate,” he said.