Oct 31 2006

How Schools Are Keeping Down the Cost of Textbooks

After growing tired of searching the district for missing textbooks, Houston County Schools decided to put technology on the trail.

Some school districts are saving a lot of money by using barcode technology to manage their textbook inventory.

With textbook costs spiraling out of control, Wally Reeves, executive director for information technology, knew that Houston County Schools needed to take stock of all its textbooks in order to save money. The school district in Perry, Ga., spends more than $5 million a year on textbooks for its 25,000 students, but it had no centralized method to keep track of its books.

Jan Morton, administrative assistant for school operations, used a paper system to oversee Houston County Schools’ textbook inventories. Without a real-time tracking system, Morton didn’t have an accurate count of textbooks. Each school gave her a tally, but those numbers were never verified because of staff shortages.

When a school was short on textbooks, Morton had to e-mail every school asking if they had any extra copies. Schools sometimes offered their extra books, but often, no one responded to her e-mail, forcing her to buy new books for the school in need.

In addition, Houston County Schools lost revenue because administrators didn’t always know whom to charge for lost books, says Sheila Beckham, principal of Houston County High School. If six students lost the same textbook for a class, and three were found and turned in, administrators had a hard time deciding whom to charge for the missing books. “A paper trail of six books for 2,200 kids is almost an unmanageable task,” she explains.

It’s not the most cost-effective or efficient way to operate, Reeves admits. “We need an inventory system to tell us what we have and where,” he says.

This year, the school district launched a textbook inventory process using barcode technology. To keep track of every textbook, school district officials are applying barcode labels with unique identification numbers in each book. When students are handed out textbooks, teachers use barcode readers to scan each textbook’s barcode number to create computerized records of each book a student is given.

Proponents say the technology cuts textbook costs by eliminating unnecessary book purchases. Because school officials have a districtwide view of the book resources available, they can tell schools with book surpluses to send their extra copies to schools that need them. The technology also allows a district to recoup money from lost books by pinpointing exactly which students lost books, so the district can send bills to their parents.


In spring 2005, Houston County Schools spent about $225,000 for its textbook inventory system, which included 1,700 barcode readers for all the teachers, about 200,000 barcode labels for textbooks and two printers for printing barcodes.

After considering textbook management software from vendors, the district used a custom-made application that it received free from the nearby DeKalb County School System. Reeves integrated the Web application with his district’s student database. He expects the technology to reduce book spending by 10 percent initially and possibly more in future years.

Georgia’s DeKalb County School System, which spends $1 million annually to replace lost books, expects to save $300,000 from better textbook management this year, says Jim Robinson, DeKalb’s assistant director of textbook services.

The Houston County school district is taking a phased approach to implementing the textbook inventory system, starting with high schools and middle schools this year and focusing on elementary schools next year. Already, the technology is getting rave reviews. “The teachers love it,” says Beckham. “It’s really easy to use.”

Teachers connect the barcode readers to their classroom computers by plugging them to a keyboard port. When they issue textbooks, they click on the students’ names on the Web application and scan the textbook barcode labels. When students return books at semester’s end, teachers check to make sure the barcode ID numbers on the books match the ones on the students’ records.

In the past, when staff found books, teachers spent a lot of time trying to figure out which students had lost the books. Now, they can use the barcode readers to scan textbooks and instantly find that information, Beckham says.

Some teachers previously created their own textbook management system by writing numbers on the textbooks and keeping paper records of which books were issued to their students. But it didn’t always work, according to Beckham. Sometimes, students who lost their books would take classmates’ texts, blot out the numbers and claim the books as their own. The barcodes, in contrast, are durable, scuff-resistant and manipulation-proof.

With the new system, Morton knows exactly which schools have surpluses because she can compare the number of textbooks in each school with student enrollment for each class. For the fall 2005 semester, about 90 new students moved into the district following the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. One high school had a textbook shortage, so Morton scanned the inventory system and with several mouse clicks ordered the transfer of textbooks from one school that had a surplus to the school in need.

With textbook inventory systems, districts also can prevent schools from ordering more books than they need. Because students often lose books, teachers usually try to get as many extra copies as they can. Now, Morton can compare a school’s request to replace lost books with the number of books it currently has. “Schools won’t be able to exaggerate the number of books they need,” she says.

Reeves has begun an innovative pilot project in the Houston County Schools to use the textbook inventory system to track tardy students. Currently, when students are late, they go to the administration office to get a permission slip, which could take 10 to 15 minutes. Allowing teachers to use their barcode readers to mark students tardy will prevent students from missing class time, he says. Teachers will use their readers to scan the barcodes on students’ ID cards, and software will update the database records to reflect the tardiness.

Of course, using barcode technology to track tardy students is simply icing on the cake. The main benefit is the ability to know how many books a school district has and where they’re located.

“It’s a blessing to have an accurate inventory of books,” Morton says. “It helps everyone — students, parents who have to pay for lost textbooks, teachers who can quickly identify books and administrators. It’s win-win.”


Wally Reeves, executive director for information technology at Houston County Schools, and Austin Brown, assistant director of information systems at DeKalb County School System, share their tips on implementing a textbook inventory system:

• Inventory the books first. Don’t barcode the books and issue them at the same time. That’s too much for the staff to handle.

• Place barcode labels inside the back cover, where there’s less wear and tear than on the front cover.

• Pilot before takeoff. Start with a pilot project in one school. Then plan a phased implementation, starting with high schools, which use the most textbooks. Once successful, do the middle schools, then the grade schools.

• Centralize. House all the district’s textbooks that are not being used in a central warehouse so staff can quickly locate and ship books to the schools that need them. The warehouse can also serve as a central location where district staff can barcode new textbooks into the system.

• Create cheat sheet. Develop simple step-by-step directions on using the barcode technology, laminate the sheet and attach it to the barcode device.

spent annually to replace lost books; $300,000 expected savings this year from better textbook management
— Georgia’s DeKalb County School System

Wylie Wong is a veteran technology writer based in Phoenix.