As a result of steady increases in the Common School Fund distributions and feedback from the field, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) undertook a review of the existing Common School Fund purchasing guidelines beginning in May 2023, a process last done in 2015. This review included three strategies for gathering ideas and feedback from school districts, including a feedback form sent to multiple district contacts, an in-person work group meeting with library media specialists from throughout the state, and a smaller convening with the five largest school district library leaders. The information gathered was analyzed by the Library Services Team, with additional feedback provided by the DPI Cabinet and legal team. We are grateful to all who participated in this review process.
The Common School Fund Feedback Form was sent via email to Library Media Specialists, Technology Directors, Business Services, and Curriculum and Instruction using district directory contacts shared with the DPI. It was also shared in various meetings and communities. There were 296 responses from 49% of Wisconsin public school districts; 202 were school library media specialists. Although CESA 6 and 9 had the highest participation based on the number of districts in those regions, feedback was received from every area of the state. Those who completed the form were allowed to share ideas as comments, which allowed for clearer expression of ideas than would have been possible with multiple choice or list options. Specific direction regarding consideration of Wisconsin Statute s. 43.70 was provided; however, many responses included items not aligned with this language. For example, the most popular requests were for furniture and supplies, none of which could be defined as a book, instructional material, computer, or related software for school libraries. The next most popular response was to not make any changes to the guidelines at all. The comments also included concerns unrelated to purchasing, such as overall school budget challenges, relationships within districts, and school library staffing.
All of the form feedback was curated and shared in the School Library Work Group meeting held at the DPI on May 24, 2023. The group consisted of library media specialists, representing diversity in district size and location, as well as professional experience and background, CESA leaders, and faculty from higher education. Additionally, leaders of the Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association (WEMTA) and the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands were engaged in the work. The work group reviewed the form responses, as well as questions the DPI received about Common School Funds throughout the 2022-23 school year. They participated in small and large group discussions and provided both verbal and written feedback throughout the day reflecting their thoughts and conclusions. Some highlights included robust discussions about the possibilities and challenges around the purchase of consumable items and concerns about how effective and intentional spending is impeded when district library programs do not meet the requirements of Wisconsin Administrative Code PI 8.01(2)(h). Their suggested actions included revisions to resources provided by the DPI to guide spending, more education about the Common School Fund outside of venues targeting school librarians, working towards increasing FTE of licensed library media specialists in districts, and supporting continued relationship building between library media specialists and other district leaders.
Although many of the library leaders from Wisconsin’s largest districts, Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Kenosha, and Green Bay, attended the work group meeting, an additional discussion with this group occurred in June. After reflecting on earlier discussions and feedback, they expressed deeper concerns about quality programming needing prioritization rather than changes in how the Common School Fund is spent in their districts. They attributed district models for funding and staffing often significantly impacting how a library looks and functions. They noted the need for shortening the statewide timeline between announcement and distribution of the Common School Fund and education for administrators about the Common School Fund would have a positive impact.
Going into this review process, our hypothesis was that changes to the guidelines provided by the DPI for the spending of Common School Funds would be made. When the feedback was reviewed and discussed, the desired proposals did not align with Wisconsin Statute s. 43.70, thus proving our hypothesis wrong. Most stakeholders and the DPI agree that initiating a change in legislation is not in the best interest of students or school libraries. Therefore, there will be no changes to the guidelines at this time. The DPI will work to create additional tools to assist districts with purchasing decisions and work to expand the reach of education about Common School Funds to school leaders beyond library media specialists.
It is clear that concerns around the Common School Fund are evident in the school library community; however, the true cause of those concerns is not as much with the Common School Fund itself, but rather with the state of school libraries. When districts struggle with providing an impactful, effective library program, the result is a difficulty with spending the Common School Fund. When that allocation increases substantially, which it has done in recent years, those challenges are exacerbated. Research shows students benefit, demonstrating increased reading engagement, better information and digital literacy skills, and social emotional growth when strong school library programs are available. Analyzing the challenges and opportunities created through the Common School Fund distribution has led us back to the source of both being the effectiveness of the library program as a whole. As a result, the DPI will continue to explore some of the root causes behind spending challenges, including connections with staffing and library plan data.