Pennsylvania school districts have seen librarian cuts, and it’s not only the Allentown School District (as previously reported in May 2014 by SLJ) where librarians are on the chopping block. On June 10, after much deliberation, Pennsylvania’s Pennridge School District announced their decision to finalize a budget plan—proposed by the schools’ superintendent—to reduce school librarian positions from 10 to nine for the 11 schools in the district that serve approximately 7,000 students.
Back in late April, elementary librarians in the district were informed the proposed 2015 budget would eliminate a librarian position.Because a third grade teacher would be retiring from Bedminster Elementary School, the school’s librarian would be transferred to fill the position. The proposed budget did not replace this empty library position.
A dwindling number of school librarians has been the trend in Pennridge. Five years ago, when the school district lost an elementary school librarian, the board decided not to fill the position. As a result, for four years Maria Sweet, librarian at West Rockhill Elementary in Sellersville, spent one day a week at another school library in rotation with other librarians in the district for the past four years. In the last school year (2013-14), Sweet spent three days at her home school and shares another elementary school with another librarian.
“It dilutes our availability to our students and our staff. At West Rockhill, where I’ve been for ten years, I know every student by name. And I make our purchases based on our curriculum needs as well as our students’ interests. But if I am pulled out of the building even more now, there will be students I don’t know,” says Sweet about the shuffling. “The more shuffling that takes places, the more changes that take place, and the bigger the disconnect.”
Part of the problem regarding district funding arises from ongoing increases in pension and healthcare benefits over the years combined with a lack of proper tax increase to mitigate the rising costs in the district. The school board has petitioned the State Department of Education for an exception and is currently allowed to increase the district’s taxes 3.6 percent from last year.
“There is going to have to be some change in our budget structure, largely being done through attrition ,” explains Dr. Peter Yarnell, president of the Pennridge School Board for the past eight years, regarding why the district is not replacing library positions due to retirement. “I certainly do not think this is a good decision. I have been discussing this with my fellow board members and the superintendent. I think it won’t serve our students well to decrease their access to literacy issues and content.”
Others are of like mind. Having served on the Pennridge District Board of Education from 1995 to 2005, Karen Sterling, the librarian at Pennridge North Middle School opposes the cut. She believes this decision is a result of the administration’s lack of understanding of the role of librarians. In a letter to the School Board Finance Committee, she listed the full responsibilities of a modern school librarian:
“It is easy to envision librarians as the staff member who reads to children and checks books in and out. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Today’s librarians are information media specialists who are helping the students of tomorrow access the media and information literacy skills they will need to successfully navigate the explosion of available information. Moreover, assuming a librarian functions much like a teacher is a mistake. While school librarians all teach, our responsibilities encompass far more, including:
- The acquisition and maintenance of collections,
- The instructional partnership with building teachers,
- The leadership role we play as the one faculty member who knows the entire scope of the building’s curriculum
- The program director role we play in instilling the love of reading
- The information specialist role we take as we model effective strategies for developing multiple literacies
- The administrative role we play as we spend down and account for our budgets in $10-20 increments”
Sterling says she also met privately with the superintendent, Dr. Jacqueline Rattigan, before the June 10 vote. Along with the elementary school library position being cut from the June 10 budget, administrative positions have been redistributed, leaving the school librarians without department supervision. Although the challenges ahead are massive, Sterling says the librarians are “hoping for the best, that this will be a temporary situation alleviated in the next budget cycle as people realize the value added by fully-staffed school libraries.” Time will tell.
Yin Mei is a freelancer and Minnesotan who has lived in the Bay Area, New York, France, and China. She enjoys covering topics from China’s social media trends to education in the United States. Follow her @MeiThoughts.