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Politics of Money for the School Library Media Professional

The Politics of Money for the School Library Media Professional: A Skeptic’s View
Minnesota Media, Fall 1994
Don’t vote. It only encourages them. - Anonymous
Vote early and often. - Mayor Richard Daly
No matter how cynical I become, it’s never enough to keep up. - Jane Wagner
I’m writing this on a pretty typical Sunday morning. I’ve spent quite some time with the newspaper. I don’t know if I’m much better for doing so. I am, however, a little more skeptical, even cynical, about the political process. Pork barrel funding, congressional deadlock, special interest lobbying, single-issue campaigns, lunatic fringe board members, Clinton’s waffling, Rush’s bombast - the nonsense never ends.

So here I sit at my kitchen table after reading the paper, after eating breakfast, writing, and watching the birds. I like life here in my modest home on the lake. My family has enough to eat, nice enough clothes to wear, and manages to even scrounge out a vacation now and then. But I also see windows that should be replaced, I have a car with over 150,000 miles on it, and I don’t have much money saved for retirement. I also have a letter here that says my taxes are going up too because the schools need more money due to a shift of funding from state to local taxes. Funny, I don’t remember my state income tax going down.

Across from me at the table is my third grade son. He can read (albeit reluctantly) and he can keep score as he wins at UNO - no problems with that double digit addition. He goes to the school that says it needs more money. I believe, as do most of his classmates’ parents, that he is getting a good education. He has competent, caring teachers working in a wonderful building. His library is a real “media” center - full of new books and computers, managed by a computer literate media specialist. I know I don’t want the quality of my son’s school to decrease, and I also know that the quality of education the children in our school district receive is not uniform. We have our share of oversized classes, deteriorating buildings, and lack-luster teachers. Any additional money our district gets would be put to good use.

Believe me, I’m no political scientist. I have a difficult time espousing a single philosophy that somehow scorns the corruption I read about in the newspaper, acknowledges both the quality and needs in our schools, and justifies the ever larger cost of government in my personal finances.

I have worked in schools and in media centers for many years. I would guess that my media centers have been better funded than the average, despite the fact that until recently I thought I avoided politics. On reflection, perhaps I haven’t. Might I have been politicking unconsciously?

For those of you who also prefer to avoid politics, I offer the following observations and advice:

I. Reject the Feds
Less than 5% of our school district’s budget comes from the federal government. Federal money supports our haphazardly apportioned Chapter One program, gives us Block Grant money, and a few other odds and ends of dollars like Eisenhower funds. Despite the fact the money comes from Uncle Sam, specifically how it is used by our schools is controlled by local folks. I have on occasion used these monies for library resources. Media specialists should know that such monies exist, who controls them, and precisely what they can be used for.

All Minnesota educators should work to end the federal government’s role in education. As a state, we get back many fewer dollars in benefits than we pay in, and when a project does get funded it smells of pork. Amendment X of the Constitution clearly states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Education is one of the powers not delegated to the federal government. The country as a whole is questioning why and how officials so removed from an average citizen’s daily life, so susceptible to lobbying efforts by special interest groups, and so lacking in principles and vision, can make good choices for our local children.

Library media professionals, let’s stay ahead of the curve. We should let it be known that we do not want federal monies, nor federal education mandates. John Naisbett in his book Global Paradox observes that throughout the world, governments are breaking into increasingly smaller units; the era of nationalism is over. This is a long-term movement which is the result of technologies and economics. Our profession should take the lead and insist that it be only the States and local governments which fund and administer public education.

II. Distrust the State
Mankato receives about two-thirds of its funding from the state. The district receives nearly 100% of its mandates from the state. There is a movement to end state rules and mandates. Some rules have been eliminated. The Legislature has been telling local districts it only wants to hold us accountable for “outcomes,” and will free of us any regulations as to how we use education dollars. I like the concept, but I will be surprised if the execution is realized. The state loves to micromanage.

MEMO this year has as one of its prime lobbying efforts that the state fund school media center resources to the amount of $15 per pupil unit categorically (the state would mandate that the money could be used for no other purpose). There would be some strings attached to the funding: the district must have a licensed media specialist, it must have an information skills curriculum, and it must in some measure contribute financially to the program.

Boy, oh, boy, could our district use an extra $110,000 in media materials! It would double what we have now.

But ask some hard questions, fellow media professionals, before you fully endorse this idea. I have several reservations about the plan:

The state tends to have a “one-size fits all” mentality for school districts. The most ludicrous has been the state’s permission to for districts to levy their local taxpayers for $300,000 to help make their buildings ADA compliant. All districts, from Minneapolis with its dozens of buildings to Cleveland with its single building, can levy the same amount of money. The state mandates that out of capital outlay funds a certain percentage be used only for facilities, and a certain percentage be used only for equipment - regardless of individual school need. The state is mandating that a certain percentage of general funds be used for staff development. In how many districts will that money be spent without appreciable benefit to Minnesota’s students? How many districts will use staff development monies to pay teacher salaries for workshop days, and then simply return the money saved on staff salaries to the general fund - where it can quite legally be spent on teacher raises or footballs or cleaning supplies? There is something in most of us that reacts badly to a mandate, and it is human nature to find ways to cleverly circumvent the impractical or foolish ones.

Who exactly would MEMO’s bill help? Will districts whose students currently do not have a media specialist suddenly hire one? Will there magically be a surge of media skills curriculum writing? Will unweeded collections transform themselves and become relevant and used? I’d really like to think so, but I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.
One of the sad lessons that the government never seems to quite learn is that it can’t mandate quality programs. Only quality individuals can create quality programs, and they will do it more often despite government rules than because of them. There are plenty of good, well-funded school media programs as a result of hard working, service-oriented, curriculum-supporting media specialists. By mandating funding to what now are, and may continue to be, mediocre programs, we are doing a grave disservice to good programs. The image of poor media programs and poor media specialists too often rubs off on good people and good programs. I personally would rather that a school not have a media program at all, than an ineffective one. And media specialists should never operate under the delusion that the state will step in - deus ex machina - and hand them the big pot of money that the local decision-makers have so cruelly denied them. Funding in any district will ‘settle-out,” and programs will be funded only to the degree they are of value to students and staff.

We are already in danger of incompetence in our profession being used as a reason for needing this funding. We have been asked to evaluate the age of our collections and cite that figure when talking to our legislators. But what does that number really say? One interpretation that a legislator might give such figures it that media specialists simply lack the professional courage or skills to weed. Collections of insufficient size to support the documented needs of the students and faculty might justify the need for more funds; having an old collection doesn’t.

I believe we should be fighting the funding battle on two other fronts, however.

First, we should be working with groups like the Minnesota Education Association and Minnesota School Board Association which simply support an increase in state formula aid and a decrease in state mandates. We do need more money per child if the public wants smaller class sizes, better print and technology resources, and the needs of all special children met. All of us have an obligation to provide the educational rational for our media program’s piece of the “pie.” I’ll make my case with the best of them. But it is discouraging to contend for resources which have been diminishing for the past four years due to salary, utility, and supply costs increases.

And if some library programs don’t get their bigger slice of the bigger pie? I am convinced their media specialists must then work smarter, or let the program die if a community truly does not want it. We have to allow that not all schools will achieve excellence in all areas. Some will never have a winning football team, some will never produce a fine scientist, and sadly, some may never have effective media programs. I genuinely feel sorry for the children in those districts, but it will be the improvement of the profession which will eventually give them a quality media program, not a few dollars worth of new materials.

Second, I would encourage the media professionals in my area to work with their legislators toward shifting school funding from property taxes to the general fund. The state has slipped in its funding of education from 70% to less than 60% over the past 20 years despite its Constitutional duty to provide a “uniform” education for all children. So what’s wrong with using local property taxes? They tend to be regressive (not based on the ability to pay, especially among elderly and rural families). Property rich districts pay significantly less (.02% of a metro family’s income is paid in property tax, compared to 1% in South Central Minnesota (Mankato Free Press,  October 17, 1994). As a result there are large, unfair discrepancies in the amount of money districts spend per student.

The state has continued to shift the tax burden on to local tax roles in a big way for the past few years. St. Paul was hit hard last year (and what kind of luck have they been having passing referendums - not much!) and many suburban and rural districts will be hit with double digit increases this year. Which all makes for wonderful campaign fodder for ultra-conservative school board candidates: “Look at those foolish school board members passing on those big tax increases!” (Those increases, remember, only replace state funds no longer returned to the district.) Most schools and media programs can tolerate one or even two of these “bottom-line” type board members whose sights never rise above their pocket books. But heaven help us all when they become the majority!

III. Work with the Locals
So, the feds shouldn’t help, and the state probably can’t. What’s a media specialist to do? The old adage to “think globally, act locally” couldn’t be better applied than to politics and the politics of getting the budget you need to support your program.

No matter how poor a district may be, odds are that it has at least one exemplary, well-funded program. Maybe it’s science, maybe it’s the debate team, or maybe it’s girls tennis. It may as well be the media program. By following some of these backyard political strategies, it is not only possible but probable for a media specialist to make his or her program the district’s shining star.

1. Learn about the district budget.
How much money does your school operate with each year? Where does that money come from and where does it go? How much Block Grant money is available? What other special levies or grants are around? What is the budget for staff development?

Your school’s business manager can help you determine these budgets. They are by law public information. Visit with your school board representative and get his or her perspective on finance and the budget.

Take some time to learn how local tax rates are determined. Be prepared to take some time if you seriously want to understand these Byzantine formulas. Learn the difference between capital funds and general funds. Know what tax abatements are. Take a school finance class at the local university. You will be able to amaze your friends, baffle your enemies, and never have to worry about running out of stimulating conversation.

Like many media specialists, I have taken my budget requests to my principal and been told there is no money in the budget. My follow-up questions then asked, “Is there money in the budget for textbooks? for band uniforms? for the office copier? for summer school?” If the answer to any of those questions was yes, then both the principal and I knew that the question was no longer one of “is there money in the budget,” but “how do we chose to spend the money in the budget?” An important difference that opens the door to budgeting for reasons rather than tradition.

2. Learn who controls the budget.
Does the superintendent in your district traditionally distribute funds? The building principals? A hands-on kind of school board? Is the money allocated to buildings on a per pupil basis, and then controlled by a site-based decision making committee? Is there a Block Grant committee?

In my experience, the happiest schools use groups to make budget decisions. While it is often an administrator who chairs the group, provides information, and guides the group to consensus, it may be department chairs, a MEEP team or site-based council who has the real say in dollar allocation. Find out.

Volunteer for those kinds of committees. I am always shocked by how few folks in an organization want to be on decision making committees. Serving on these bodies always takes extra time. But hey, one learns to love those 7:00 am meetings.

If you have a chance to take a decision making role and do not, don’t you dare whine about the choices that are made for you.

3. Learn how to write an effective budget.
Get out your spreadsheets, and clearly show decision-makers how much money your program requires if it is to be effective. How can anyone give you what your want, if you yourself can’t determine it or communicate it? Know and follow district budgeting schedules. If your capital outlay requests are due February 15, then they better be in.

Good program budgets have three components:
  • goals - this is the effect my funded program will have on student learning
  • specificity - this is how much money I want, and this is exactly how I will spend it
  • assessment - this is how I will be able to tell you if the money you give my program helped it met its goals
Too often budgets have relied on state or national standards as a rationale for funds for resources and collection building. (The Colorado study shows…, Information Power says…, School Library Journal reports…) Just as there is cynicism about the political process across the nation, so is there a general distrust in statistics. The belief that statistics don’t lie, but liars can use statistics is deeply and widely felt.

Rely instead on a budget which is justified because it supports the specific needs of your individual curricula, students, and teachers. The fact that Mrs. Green’s science students need more current and varied resources for their solar system unit will carry more weight that any state rule or national standard.

Remember also that media budgets which come as a recommendation of a building media advisory committee carry more weight than those developed by the individual media specialist. Who wants to turn down a whole group, especially if that group includes parents, students, and teachers?

Folks, there is only so much money in a school budget. In tight financial times, I believe school districts with inadequate budgets should drop some programs totally rather than watch all programs become mediocre as a result of 10% cuts year after year. You will have to make a case for your program strong enough to take money from other departments. Prepare to make enemies. You had better sincerely believe that your program offers to children knowledge and skills and opportunities no other program in the school can. You’d better have a professional mission and the courage needed to do the right thing.

4. Work with other groups
There are other groups in schools which have political agendas, some of which may be closely aligned with those of the media program. Our district has a legislative committee which meets during the sessions. We formulate a list of three or four items we feel are of particular importance to our district, and find ways to let our local legislators know about them.

Nearly all state associations with educational affiliations have legislative platforms - the school board association, administrators associations, parent-teacher organizations, the MEA, etc. These organizations often hold forums for local politicians. Attend, get informed and get active.

MEMO and MLA sponsor a yearly library legislative day which gives librarians and media specialists from around the state a chance to visit with the folks in St. Paul. Usually the school media people are scarce at this gathering. Join us.

Is one of your faculty, a neighbor, or church member in the legislature? Schmooze. Write letters. Send e-mail.

5. Participate in local politics.
County political party meetings and fund raisers often give you a chance to visit with a variety local politicos. It’s always nice to be able to start a conversation with your senator by saying, “As we were discussing at the fall fund raiser…”

Help pass bond issues and elect school board members. Members of the community who have children in school and therefore a vested interest in schools are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the total population. It’s therefore taking increasingly more work to get referendums passed and progressive board candidates voted in.

Offer to give short talks at service groups like Kiwanis, Sertoma, and Lions. Inform the community about your program, and fill the talk with specific times your program helped individual students.

Of course one can always make the ultimate sacrifice: run for office. We all wanted to know about the skeletons in your closet anyway!

No time to create that meaningful, specific budget? No time to serve on the site based committee? No time to weed? No time to learn about district finance? Then you should certainly hope that MEMO’s effort for obtaining categorical funding fails. How would you ever have time to select, order, processes, and integrate all those new materials you’d finally have the funds to buy?

It’s getting dark here this Sunday evening. My son is taking a last pass at his spelling words and my wife is settled in writing lesson plans for tomorrow. I think I’ll skip the ten o’clock news and resolve not to worry about those new tires the car will need soon.

I don’t know whether our schools and communities have the quality they do because of politics or despite politics. But I do know this: if my media program is to improve through better funding, it will be because I am involved, I work hard, and I believe in my mission.

Posted on Wednesday, July 18, 2007 at 07:04PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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