Schools' Budgetary Scissors Cut Paper

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Earlier generations of students copied homework assignments from the blackboard onto pages of lined, three-hole notebook paper. In today's classrooms, assignments often come preprinted on a photocopy slapped onto the desk.

Teachers generate copies by the ream. And now, in tight budget times, many schools are trying to save money, time and trees by cutting back on paper.

The Montgomery County school system's $2.1 billion spending request for the next fiscal year reflects the smallest year-to-year increase -- about $40 million -- this decade. Because the system faces an increase of at least $76 million in fixed costs, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast plans $36 million in cuts to bring the budget into balance.

One way every school can contribute to that cause is by saving paper. A 5,000-sheet case of copier paper costs about $40. Envision copying 30 to 40 sheets every week for 500 students, and it's easy to see how costs add up.

Some schools are taking a fresh look at "paperless" activities, meaning pretty much anything involving three-dimensional objects. Searching for hands-on activities is "just a great strategy," apart from any cost-saving concerns, "because the more varied the activities in the learning program, the better the program," Barbara J. Leister, principal of Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda, said in an e-mail.

Jennifer Baker, principal of Tilden Middle School in Rockville, said she is asking teachers to "consider the cost" when they are making copies, a concern that might not have entered their minds a year or two ago. Baker cited the Promethean boards, interactive screens that have been installed in classrooms at many schools, as an aid to paperless study. They allow students, for example, to vote or answer yes-no questions electronically from their desks.

Some teachers at Rockville High School are returning to the old ways: asking students to bring notebook paper and copy questions from the board, as was customary in the days of the mimeograph. It's a bit of an adjustment for students who are used to "just getting a piece of paper with the questions already written on it," said Debra S. Munk, the principal.

Staff members at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville are reducing the amount of paper used for fliers sent home by printing them on half-sheets -- and distributing them only to the youngest child in families with more than one student at the school, said Rachael Nichols, PTA president.

The Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations is "trying to move as much as we can online" through its Internet site and e-mail lists, said Kay Romero, county PTA president. One copy of the monthly president's newsletter is sent to PTA presidents now instead of three. The group is exploring putting its annual PTA directory online.

"The drawback of moving so much online," Romero said in an e-mail, "is making sure that we do not leave anyone out who may not have computer access."

The copier at College Gardens Elementary now requires a personal code, and each employee has a monthly limit of copies, said Kate Savage, a parent. College Gardens and many other schools are encouraging faculty instead to use Copy-Plus, a centralized print shop that operates as a sort of Kinko's for Montgomery teachers.

Copy-Plus, an ensemble of nine high-volume copiers housed in a relocatable classroom in Rockville, produced 79 million copies for schools last year; the number is projected to rise this year to more than 90 million.

Copies produced at the central facility save money in a few different ways. Because of the volume, copies made there cost less per page than if they were printed on the smaller machines at individual schools. Using Copy-Plus also relieves the pressure on smaller copiers and printers in the schools, said John Marshall, supervisor of graphics and publishing. "That has allowed us to extend the life of the school-based equipment," he added, "and that savings will be showing up in fiscal year 2010."

Marshall estimates that a teacher saves an hour of labor for every 2,500 copies referred to Copy-Plus. The math suggests the service saved the school system's teachers a collective 30,000 hours last year, freeing them to do other things.

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