Philadelphia school children are facing an education without librarians—as well as nurses, counselors, athletic coaches, summer school, and school secretaries—because of a $304 million budget shortfall for the 2013–2014 school year.
“I’ve always been told there’s not enough money,” says Carol Heinsdorf, the former president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians and currently employed as a certified school librarian in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). “And now we’re bring told there’s not enough money. So what’s changed? I will say certified school librarians have not been a priority of people in position of authority affiliated with the SDP.”
To date, there are just 43 certified school librarians in more than 250 schools, says Heinsdorf. And SDP is looking at potentially cutting these positions, along with a reported 3,000, more to try to balance the 2013–2014 budget. Repeated calls to SDP were not returned over the course of a week, and a request to speak with Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer in Philadelphia, was declined by email.
But the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) says that the district is trying to get cuts equal to $133 million from the union through salary reductions, increases to health insurance, longer days and reduced prep times, according to George Jackson, PFT’s communications director.
With the union’s contract set to expire on August 31, the PFT has started negotiating with the district—even before Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. presented the possible budget in mid-April. But the funds the district hopes to reap from the union are only part of what’s needed, with SDP asking the state for an additional $120 million and the city for a further $60 million, with hearings held before the City Council on this week. It’s a scenario that is upsetting to many involved.
“We’re talking about money just to maintain a status quo that’s underserving our students,” says Jackson. “Most of our schools don’t have full time libraries already. We’re already talking to our kids to make them more accountable, and to get everything out of them. To not have a school librarian is a huge detriment.”
Brett Schaeffer, communications director at the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy and non-profit educational group in Philadelphia, testified Tuesday before the City Council on the impact that losing 100 school nurses two years ago had on Philadelphia school children. The proposed budget would cut the remaining nurses even further, going from one nurse for every 1,000 students to about one for every 1,500 students, says Schaeffer. And the affect on losing all school librarians? Not thinkable.
“There’s clear evidence of students’ achievement due to full-time accredited school librarians,” he says. “The idea that they just go to zero school librarians is just not acceptable.”
While requests for funding are likely to continue to be discussed, schools are likely starting to look at what the new situation may require of them. Individual schools will be the ones deciding what they can —and cannot—afford, with principals set to receive just enough money, beyond their salary, to pay for teachers based on their contracted classroom size of 30 students for K–3, and 33 students per class for older grades. If extra funds are restored, however, few believe that school librarians will be a priority.
“If there’s art, music, or a librarian, it’s a principal’s decision,” says Heinsdorf. “But the first thing they’ll want is a secretary.”