November 18, 2017

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How Three California Cities Fought to Save School Libraries

1508-FT_Tale3Cities_OpenerAs post-recession budget woes have extended debates about the relevance of school libraries, their plight has been most dramatic in California. What does it take to save a city’s school libraries? This snapshot of three districts in the state—Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vista—illustrates the setbacks faced by each and the steps taken to restore or maintain its school librarians. While these regions have faced deep challenges—Los Angeles schools, in particular, have been decimated by cuts in the last decade—informed intervention, outreach, and good timing can make the difference when facing a tough fiscal baseline.

The big picture

In 2009, California lawmakers passed a state budget that included $6.1 billion in cuts to K–12 education. Districts across the state suffered large losses to librarians and staff, and by 2011–12, 53 percent of public schools statewide had no full or part-time certified librarian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By contrast, just 20 percent of public schools nationwide went without librarians that year.

In San Francisco, well over half of the district’s 56,000 students are children of color and qualify for free or reduced lunch. The district had long seen the value in investing in school libraries—and a partnership with the city cushioned most of the blow of state cuts during the recession that started in 2008. Further south, Vista Unified School District (VUSD) serves just over 22,000 students, predominately Latino. While the district in this small city, which is north of San Diego, experienced recession cuts, no layoffs were necessary, according to district officials. In Los Angeles, the state’s largest and potentially most challenging district, cuts were devastating.

Over 10,000 public school employees were laid off in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) beginning in 2008, including teacher librarians. In 2011, librarians were cut from the budget altogether. Half the district’s library aides were laid off, and those remaining worked reduced hours. Schools scrambled to find their own funding to keep libraries open, with parents chipping in. At many schools, library access for students was eliminated.

Even before the layoffs, LAUSD schools struggled to adequately serve low-income students of color. A 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that library collections in some schools “were in poor condition because of age and/or were inadequate to meet the students’ needs.”

As the economy has stabilized, LAUSD has begun working to make up for its losses. Last year, it passed a significantly increased budget that has enabled officials to begin addressing years’ worth of understaffed libraries. The district had prioritized reopening elementary school libraries in 2014–15, but by April, about 60 schools were still unstaffed. In June, the district experienced another setback: 22 library aides were fired, though the district increased its 2015–16 budget by $850,000.

The new $7.8 billion budget was approved on June 23. An anticipated correction to the budget had the potential to rescind layoffs, according to Gayle Pollard-Terry, LAUSD’s senior deputy director of communications and media relations.

Despite their differences, school officials in all three districts are reinventing the roles their libraries will play—and are working to reinvest in them.

San Francisco: cushioning the blow, early

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) sits just under 400 miles north of Los Angeles, but is distinctly different from its southern counterpart, with fewer students, a smaller budget, and a ratio of one librarian to every 788 students.

The district has long prioritized school libraries. In 2004, budget concerns led to the creation of the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF), a legislative agreement between the city and SFUSD, which channeled a portion of the city’s general fund toward school programs and services for a 10-year period.

“While the state was ramping down, we were ramping up,” says Kathy Fleming, PEEF program administrator. “It was important to secure funding to provide many of the things that are often in jeopardy of being cut first, such as libraries.” The $10 million fund was supported by an over two-thirds majority of voters in 2004.

The city controls one-third of the total fund, which goes to universal pre-K services; SFUSD controls the rest. In 2005, the district was allotted $6.6 million dollars to be spent on library, sports, art, music, and other education-related services.

Prior to PEEF, just 23 percent of libraries in the district had a credentialed librarian. Collections were not maintained, and students, particularly in elementary schools, lacked reliable access to books and research materials.

In 2005–06, PEEF’s first year, the share of schools served by teacher librarians more than doubled, and by 2007–08, 90 percent of schools had them. In 2014–15, teacher librarians were on campus at each of the district’s 104 school libraries at least twice weekly—and officials are working to increase the hours spent at the largest and most underperforming schools, according to SFUSD spokeswoman Heidi Anderson. (One in 10 of California’s 820 teacher librarians work in San Francisco.)

While school sites can supplement librarians using other funds, the vast majority of the city’s librarians—as well as technology and book collection updates, professional development, and even infrastructure upgrades—are funded by PEEF, said Fleming. Last November, voters extended the fund by 26 years. Next year, the district will spend nearly $60 million on PEEF—and about nine million for librarians and library services.

Los Angeles: ongoing struggles

San Francisco’s early—and joint—commitment to funding for library services helped cushion the blow of budget cuts that vibrated downstate from Sacramento during the recession. But in Los Angeles, officials have had a decidedly harder time staffing libraries in hundreds of schools. In 2014, there were just 98 librarians in a district with over 700 school libraries, according to Southern California Public Radio.

After years of cuts, the Los Angeles Unified school board approved the creation of a library task force in February 2014. The group was led by school board member Monica Ratliff and charged with addressing staffing concerns. The group authored a report on the current state of libraries in the district and created a funding plan.

Among the findings in the report, released in July 2014, was a student-librarian ratio well below both the national average and California’s model school library standard—one teacher librarian for every 5,784 students.

Three-hour staffing windows—standard for library aides working primarily in elementary schools—were found to be insufficient to meet students’ needs. The report made a series of recommendations to be carried out over three years—among them, an increase to library aides’ hours.

In 2014–2015, 663 library aides worked at elementary, middle, and high schools in the district, according to LAUSD public information officer Monica Carazo. Thirty teacher librarians—about half of whom are paid for by schools, and the rest by the district—served over 100,000 students at 85 middle schools, and 76 worked in high schools. In May, the district was looking to potentially hire 12 more middle school teacher librarians after a revision to the state budget, Carazo says.

Those changes to the state budget, announced by Governor Jerry Brown in May, included an increase to K–12 funding by more than $3,000 per student, an attempt to help districts correct funding inequities using the Local Control Funding formula, which gives districts more flexibility in how they spend state funding. Districts get a uniform, base-level grant, which is then increased based on the demographic makeup of the student populations. Low-income, special needs, and English language learners, for example, earn additional funding.

Following school board member Ratliff’s task force report, some of the district’s 669 library aides saw an increase in their hours. Some now work six-hour days, split between two school sites—enough to earn them benefits and provide more coverage to elementary schools.

Vista: libraries and the Common Core

The increased funding across the state may further enable school libraries’ recovery—also supported, educators say, by the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have helped revitalize the importance of librarians.

“There’s a greater, explicit emphasis on reading, including informational texts and close reading,” said Lesley Farmer, a former teacher librarian and head of California State University Long Beach’s graduate librarianship program. Liz Dodds, president of the California School Library Association, says the standards provide “more chances for the library to have meaning.”

In Vista, district officials have committed to redesigning their school libraries through the lens of Common Core. While VUSD didn’t lay off librarians during the recession, it did experience $30 million in budget cuts. When teacher librarians moved or retired, their positions weren’t filled or were replaced with library technicians.

In 2013, librarians and aides feared cuts were on the way. This led VUSD superintendent Devin Vodicka to create a task force whose goal would be to completely reverse the situation: to shape a district-wide reinvestment in school libraries, which he saw as crucial to the CCSS.

“[Libraries are] no longer just [about] checking out books. They are working with teachers to help as we look at these very rigorous content standards and put them into play,” said Jeanie Luckey, VUSD deputy superintendent. “We had to dig in and find the funding.”

Luckey created the Library Services Committee, comprised of 32 librarians, principals, education experts, district administrators, and parents, to undertake a targeted, eight-month study. The group looked at the current state of libraries in Vista and devised a comprehensive, three-year plan—including yearly priorities and funding.

The three primary focus areas include improving access and equity across the district, supporting teachers (especially with the Common Core), and tech innovation. The plan was approved unanimously by the school board in January 2014 and paid for through Local Control Funding. It went into effect in 2014–15.

Recommendations for the first year included bumping the status of all library media technicians to full time and assigning a teacher librarian to support the aides, who work primarily in elementary schools. By the end of the second year, the plan calls for a full-time teacher librarian at every middle school and two at every comprehensive high school. Currently, there is a teacher librarian or library technician providing coverage at each Vista school. The initiative is also pushing for more professional development opportunities.

“Since we created the plan, we’ve had more professional development than we’ve had in the previous 10 years,” said Nancy Tubbs, a teacher librarian at Rancho Buena Vista High School who served on the task force.

Vista Unified has worked with the San Diego County Office of Education to provide librarian training opportunities—particularly in 1:1 device programs. Tubbs says that morale among librarians is at an all-time high.

“Everyone feels more accepted,” she says. “It’s like we’re experiencing a renaissance and being rediscovered.”

Officials in Vista have encouraged their librarians to share the plan with peers in other districts. Tubbs and a group of colleagues recently presented at a California School Library Association meeting with the district’s support. The goal, Tubbs says, is to not just spread hope but to share ideas that other districts can turn into action.

“We can’t just let this country’s libraries end up a thing of the past,” Luckey says.

Alexandria Neason is an education reporter with the Teacher Project, a team of journalists based at Columbia Journalism School. When she’s not covering teachers and schools for Slate and other news outlets, she’s hoarding books and magazines. Her Kindle has been collecting dust on a window sill for years.

This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Jerri Patton says:

    Thank you, SFUSD, Kathy Fleming, PEEF program administrator and the voters of San Francisco!

  2. Richard Moore says:

    You might check with Garden Grove. They reduced librarians but are hiring again. The goal is to get back to one LMT at each 7-12 school.