With school budgets stretched to their limits, educators are seeking every means to control costs without compromising the quality of education. Because textbook management is one of the areas in which expenses have soared, school leaders are looking at ways to control costs by minimizing losses from damaged or missing textbooks.

At the 1,500-student Bolsa Grande High School in Orange County, Calif., a bar-coding system for books and for student IDs was combined with software designed to ensure accountability by students for the books they received. The result? A substantial savings in textbook costs, according to Margaret Walton, the school’s accounting technician.

A number of textbook management software solutions are available. Virtually any would have been preferable to the triplicate paperwork system in use at Bolsa Grande prior to 1997. With the old system, Walton explained, there was a quagmire of paper, including three cards filled out for each book issued to a student: One was kept in a central card file by the textbook administrator for each student; a second was kept by the textbook administrator for each textbook; and a third card was kept by the teacher. Accountability was difficult to enforce, and reports on overall costs of lost and damaged books were virtually impossible to compile.

To solve the problem, Bolsa Grande searched for an automated system that provided flexibility and responsive technical support to help manage textbooks. The school selected a product from Salt Lake City-based COMPanion Corp., called Textbook Tracker (www.textbooktracker.com). Here’s how it works:

1. Books are bar-coded individually.

2. Students receive bar codes on their IDs.

3. As students check books out, bar codes on the books are matched to the student ID number/bar code.

4. Textbooks can be classified by condition.

5. Reports can provide information on textbooks damaged, textbook surpluses, and shortages.

6. Reports show which students have which books.

Using this system, students are held accountable for returning all books undamaged and are notified during registration of fines from the previous semester. “We zap the student IDs and zap the bar codes on the books,” says Walton. “We can check a student out now in a matter of minutes.”

Implementation of a textbook management system doesn’t need to be overwhelming. At Bolsa Grande, the Men’s League helped with this project during the summer of 1997 by bar-coding all textbooks. A catalog was then created of all students in the school. According to Walton, “Often, these data can be imported from the school’s existing [student] information system.”

Bolsa Grande’s database of textbook and student information includes the following data and features: Lost or damaged textbooks by a specific student; the ability to charge fines for overdue books; the ability to send out notices of fines; the ability to see easily which books students have and when they are due back to the school; the ability to bar-code and check out any educational materials in addition to books (musical instruments, science equipment, etc.); and the total value of lost textbooks.

This information would have been cost-prohibitive and perhaps impossible to obtain with a paper-based tracking system. What’s more, the payback on an investment in textbook management software often is achieved within a year. Depending on its size, a school can save from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps more importantly, such systems provide a means to cut educational costs without cutting the quality of education. “We never looked back,” says Walton.

Textbook prices are “below the tip of the iceberg” as a cost of education. More attention is given to controlling costs related to facilities, special programs, or teacher’s salaries. But improved management of textbooks is a painless way to reduce the cost of education. Sound textbook management tools provide the further benefit of teaching students accountability for their books and educational materials–which isn’t a bad lesson, either.

Ed McDonell is an author and freelance writer with graduate degrees in library science and business management/em>