This School District Normally Gets $66,000 a Year for Library Books. This Year — $500,000.

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Money from the American Rescue Plan will be used to replace items that went missing when schools closed at the start of the pandemic and enhance the district’s overall collection, St. Paul officials say.

A school district in Minnesota will use up to half a million dollars in federal relief funds to replace and update its collection of library books, nearly nine times the regular annual budget for those items.

The St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education approved the measure unanimously as part of the consent agenda at its May 18 meeting.

Schools in Minnesota shut down on March 16,  2020, at which point more than 21,000 books were still checked out to students in St. Paul, according to materials from the meeting. Students have since had “multiple opportunities to return the materials,” including district-issued reminders and notices, leading officials to conclude that those books “will likely not be returned.”

The number of missing items is not statistically significant from any other year, said Kevin Burns, spokesman for St. Paul Public Schools. There are more than 700,000 books in circulation at 66 libraries throughout the district—one in each school—and about 3% of that collection goes missing each year. Students are sent reminders to return them but are generally not asked to pay for items that are never brought back, Burns said.

“We believe a book in the hands and the homes of our students is much better than a book on a shelf in a school library,” he said. “Books are meant to be read, and shared, and enjoyed, so with that philosophy, we’d rather have families have the books than not.”

In a typical year, each library receives $1,000 from the district to replace and update its collection, with additional building-level funds in some cases for specific libraries. 

“We understand that to be vastly underfunded. This is not a new issue, and we have been looking for ways in the last several years to try to make up for it,” Burns said. “The federal Covid relief funding from the American Rescue Plan allows us to do that—not only to replace missing materials, but to also update the overall condition of our books.”

The timeline for procurement is unclear, though the American Rescue Plan stipulates that funds must be used for costs incurred by the end of 2024. The district’s school year concluded on Tuesday, and building-level staff, including librarians, will at some point begin to review the inventory of materials to assess their condition and the relevancy and timeliness of their subject matter, Burns said. Decisions on what types of books are needed will be determined on a library-by-library basis, given the different needs of each school. 

The $500,000 allocation is a small portion of the district’s share of federal funding, which totals $228 million, according to U.S. Rep Betty McCollum—more than a third of its regular $600 million operating budget. It’s a thrilling opportunity for the schools to enhance services and infrastructure, Burns said, and one that will be carried out thoughtfully, with input from stakeholders outside of the schools. 

“We want to be judicious, we want to be thoughtful,” he said. “From a district perspective, this is very exciting, but we also recognize that the experts who will make this most effective and impactful and relevant for our students are the staff in those buildings. This cannot be a top-down administrative series of decisions to have any hope of being appropriate, relevant and accountable. It just cannot and will not happen that way here in St. Paul.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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