Budget cuts for schools, what to do?

My wife just sent me an email from her Moms Club.  One of the mothers is a teacher at a local district and sent a request for suggestions to all the members of the club.  Apparently her district, in light of the budget crisis in California, is forming a committee of community members and is soliciting applicants or simply suggestions from local individuals.  This is basically a search for ideas from the community on how to save costs and improve schools.

I thought this was great.  As an employee of the Val Verde Unified School District and a father of 2 (soon to be three!) I am very interested in what happens to the state of our schools.

Simply put there is no money.  So, I won’t get on a soapbox and demand that education doesn’t get cut. That’s simply not realistic.

I am the poster child for doing too much with too little time, but this may be one committee I’ll look into being a part of.

Here are some of the suggestions I sent back with the email.  If any of you have some thoughts on these, for or against, or some other additions yourselves feel free to chime in. 

Thanks!


I’m really excited that the district is looking outside for public suggestions.  This is great.  Usually districts (including ours) think they have all the answers.  I always hear people saying "they waste too much money doing X.  If they just did Y it would be better and cheaper."  It would be great to get these ideas into actual consideration and action.

I would say the first two high priority issues for me are class sizes (I.e. keeping teachers) and class days.  At work this morning we talked about the thought of closing the schools for 5 days.  It sounds like David heard some news that this may not happen.  It wasn’t entirely thought through (it really was just one of the suggestions) and there may not be any real savings in it (and a whole lot of opposition!)

So that brings me down to the one priority of class sizes.  Simply put, there isn’t enough money right now to keep that many teachers on staff or pay for the cost of physically having a school open (electricity, custodians, etc).  So, if teachers are to be kept and building are to remain open you have to find MAJOR savings elsewhere.

As a technologist there are several low cost solutions that I can think of that would replace some more expensive practices that are in place right now.  I’d like to see these explored.  It would be a great way to save money with little loss of quality.

Here’s just a bullet point of ideas I have.  Again, most of them are on technology but there are a few others in here.  For the technology ideas I would extremely encourage seeking the assistance of the IT staff or a knowledgeable person.  Some inexpensive and flashy solutions that are getting a lot of press late just aren’t ready for the market yet or simply do not save money.  The ideas I present below are simply suggestions and may or may not fit all situations.

  • Alternatives to SMART Boards
    SMART boards are very popular, and extremely costly.  A project started by a student (Jonny Lee) at Carnegie Mellon allows you to use the wireless controller for the Nintendo Wii and a projector in place of SMART Boards or similar technology.  If you already have a projector and a computer (many classrooms have these) the cost is ~$50.  Very comparable to a Smart board and in some ways better.
    Here is a video talking about the Wiimote whiteboard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s5EvhHy7eQ
    Here is the project webpage: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~johnny/projects/wii/
    Here is a comparison (by a school) comparing this solution to smart boards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSDxc2kFjms
  • Alternatives to new computers
    Everyone wants computers in their child’s classroom.  This can be very costly.  Fortunately technology is incredibly powerful these days and most school applications don’t need state-of-the-art computer systems.  This has created a market where schools (and other organizations) can purchase high quality computers that are slightly used for as little as $100 each.  Computers coming off of 1 or 2 year leases are called "off lease" computers.  Some companies do extremely intensive work and constantly need to purchase high-end new computers for their employees.  This creates a large market of quality computers that are only 1 or 2 years old.  At Val Verde we commonly purchase these types of computers.  There are some pros and cons to this but largely getting computers for $100 has been a real cost savings and has allowed us to purchase many more computers than we normally would have been able to.  Just make sure to go with a reputable vendor who has several hundred in bulk (rather than your local small business getting rid of 2 or 3).  This way the vendor can easily guarantee the machines and replace any that may fail to work.
  • Laser printers instead of Ink-Jet
    Do not buy ink-jet printers.  This seems counter intuitive for some people since they are very cheap and in some cases free.  However, you spend a fortune on ink and they often breakdown much more often with paper jams, dried up ink, broken plastic parts, etc.  They are pretty much considered disposable these days.  When you have 25 students in a classroom this can be quite a lot of abuse for a home type ink-jet printer.  These have become a black hole for expenses.
    Instead purchase inexpensive but economical laser printers.  These often cost more initially but their toner lasts much longer, thus being much less expensive in the long run.  They are also usually intended for businesses and as a result can withstand much more use.
  • Classroom supplies
    Basic supplies like paper, pencils, pens, crayons, rulers, notebooks, etc can be quite costly.  It’s fallen on the teachers themselves to personally pay for any supplies they cannot get from their district.  I say it would be great for the teacher to have a fundraiser in their own classroom every so often, such as during back to school night.  If each parent would donate as little as $5 (maybe like sponsoring their child :)) in a class size of 25 students this would create $125 for supplies .  That’s not a whole lot but if you shop at warehouse stores like Costco or discount stores you can purchase a huge amount of supplies for very cheaply.  $100 at Costco goes a really long way in their office supply section.
    If you have the ability to make use of a computerized whiteboard, such as my first bullet point, then you can cut way down on any "presentation" supplies such as dry erase markers, chalk, etc.  The teachers and students can easily use the computerized whiteboard without any consumable costs.
  • Textbooks
    I’m not sure about all schools but our high schools (and many others near us) have gone to the point of purchasing 2 textbooks for every student.  This is so that one textbook stays in the classroom and the other permanently goes home with the child.  With the amount of textbooks kids need these days and the removal of lockers at some sites this was a solution so that kids wouldn’t have to lug around books or forget them at home.  Unfortunately this effectively almost doubles your textbook costs.  I had to lug around books when I went to school.  I think most of us did.  At high school we used our lockers (normal or PE) and cars to stash books between classes.  When finances become real slim I think this is a solution to a problem that doesn’t take priority. 
    Even more encouraging is many of the textbook publishers now offer the entire textbook as an Adobe Acrobat file.  Many students in our area come from low income households and may not have access to a computer.  However, there are a majority of students who do have a computer or some other device such as an iPod Touch, iPhone, Palm Pilot, etc that can read PDF files.  They can take advantage of having their entire textbook in an electronic form.  Purchasing only one textbook per student would be a great cost savings while still offering the ability for most students to have multiple electronic copies.  With the ability to search, index, cross-reference the book in Acrobat Reader, along with no torn pages or defacement from a previous student I wish electronic versions were available when I was a student!
  • Music/Art
    We were just talking about this in my department this morning.  It’s most likely that music will be cut entirely across our whole elementary level.  This is very sad and will obviously be protested by many music lovers.  But I won’t join them on my soapbox because there is no money.  That’s it, plain and simple.  The question is what are we going to do about it (besides demanding money that isn’t there)?
    There are three experienced musicians in our department (that IS unusual) but I was thinking there are probably several dozen in a decent sized district.  If it’s possible and can be worked with administration I think it would be a great idea if staff could volunteer their time.  Yes, it would be unpaid and have to be worked into your schedule.  But I think it would be great to keep our music programs running if a few people would adopt the program at their site.  They could take a few hours out of their week, or work out some sharing program where maybe they only took one hour out of the week.  Then they could run the music class at the elementary level.  This would require a basic knowledge about music and working with kids.  For the most part you are working with beginners so you wouldn’t have to be a well seasoned music instructor, just someone who liked working with kids and could teach music fundamentals.  This may be an economical way to keep the program going in these hard times. 
    This same idea could be applied to any of the "creative" areas that are in danger of being cut.
    When I was in elementary school we had one parent who was really creative and also knew how to play guitar.  She would come to our school entirely on her own time and visit classrooms on Fridays for a half an hour.  During that time we either learned songs, music fundamentals like clapping rhythms or basic notes, would work on various art projects, etc.  It was all volunteer and unfunded but was a great time that I remember.

Those are just a few suggestions off the top of my head.  I’m sure there are many other people here that have wonderful ideas in many different areas.  I am encouraged that this district is looking for suggestions like this and may be considering putting some of them into action.


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Matt Penner

One thought on “Budget cuts for schools, what to do?

  1. Great suggestions! One of our contributors, a high school math teacher from Kentucky, recently wrote an entry about overcoming budgetary issues in order to obtain technology for the classroom. Like you, he believes educators can find more affordable alternatives that work just as well as more expensive technology. He suggested using OpenOffice, which is freely distributed, instead of Microsoft Office. You can read more of his suggestions at http://timath.com/blog/?p=390

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