After a nine-month battle, Minnesota’s Saint Paul Public Schools has agreed to more than double the number of school librarians over the next two years—to 25 positions—by the fall of 2015. And Saint Paul has a message for new library school graduates: Please apply.
“This is a district that is taking the role of media specialists seriously, says Paul Rohlfing, an organizer with the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), which negotiated with the district to increase the number of school librarian positions in their K–12 schools. “We want the young, radical school librarians who are looking to make a difference.”
Currently, Saint Paul’s 38,000 students are served by ten media specialists, an “abhorrent ratio,” says SPFT president Mary Cathryn Ricker, who has led the union for the past nine years. Ten new school librarians will be added for the 2014–2015 school year, with an additional five added the following year. The positions will be assigned to school sites, with school placement decided by the district, Rohfling says. The union will go back to the bargaining table in 2016 to renegotiate its two-year contract.
Ricker says that the district initially resisted discussing school librarians during contract negotiations, because of what they said was ” an inherent managerial right” of deciding who to hire. When the union brought the question of school librarians to the bargaining table, in effect showing that they took the issue as seriously as they did wage and benefit increases, “the district got serious about addressing it.”
Negotiations started in May 2013 and lasted until February 2014, when the district agreed to add more school librarians.
“We tried other ways to stop the hemorrhaging of librarians cut in the past decade, and the district wasn’t taking us seriously,” says Ricker. “But they did see the damage to student learning.”
The damage to library collections was also evident, says Rohlfing. He notes that some of the school libraries had been recipients of a makeover by the store Target. However, these revamped facilities were now without school librarians to run them.
“We had libraries managed or mismanaged by improperly-trained volunteers or parents in some cases,” he says. “We heard of horror stories of books being thrown out for having old copyright dates. That seemed ridiculous.”
Rohlfing says SPFT tried to pack the open-door negotiations with parents for support, until the district filed for mediation in September, at which point parents and others—not in the union—were not allowed to be present. But SPFT continued to rally, holding a walk-in on January 30, when parents and teachers marched before school and created YouTube videos on topics from PreK funding to the need for school librarians—issues also discussed during negotiations.
The union won other staffing victories in other areas as well. The district will add seven school nurses, and 15 school counselors will be hired over the next two years. Negotiators also secured an additional $6 million in pre-K funding.
To Rohlfing, the new agreement is a huge step forward—even if it did not meet everyone’s goals. He believes the renewed support for media specialists may help the district attract new recruits.
“It sends a message to licensed media specialists of where to look to start their career,” says Rohlfing. “We hope to draw some of the best.”