Kansas Suffers a School Librarian Slide

A proposed revision to a Kansas law may help protect school librarians' jobs, but it will be hard to reverse the slow drain of certified school librarian positions in the state during the past decade.
KansasClimb_feature A Kansas law, KAR 91-31-32(c)(9), states that in order to be accredited, school districts must offer library services for their students. Yet districts are also permitted to amend this rule through a five-part guidance, which reads: “...under some circumstances, where library services are not available, the use of the public library may be considered a substitute.” In addition, unaccredited clerks can be used in school libraries, but only to handle tasks such as checking out and returning books, shelving, and turning computers on for students. They are not allowed to instruct. But “there are no checks and balances” to ensure those rules are followed, says Jackie Lakin, information management program consultant with Career, Standards and Assessment Services in the Kansas State Department of Education, and a former library media specialist. An opportunity this fall may allow changes to the guidance. Lakin hopes that the option to use public libraries will be eliminated, with clear definitions added to explain what “some circumstances” means. But this revised language wouldn’t be able to completely undo a confluence of events—not the least of which includes state budget cuts—that has led to a slow drain of certified school librarian positions in the past decade. School districts in Kansas have been forced to make other sacrifices as well: At least six districts reportedly ended the school year early this spring, stating they lacked funds to keep doors open. There are also reports that teachers are leaving the state for teaching opportunities elsewhere. “It just feels like if you’re an educator, you have a target on your back in Kansas,” says Sherry Roberts, instructional support library media specialist with the Library Media and Textbook Services department in Wichita Public Schools. Since the 2005–06 school year, the number of library media specialists in Kansas’ 1,413 schools has dropped from 924 to 730. While budgets are certainly to blame, Lakin says that some school districts are also cutting “rotten apples” and then eliminating the positions all together. “Sometimes we have someone who isn’t functioning as well as they can in the position,” she says. “I get those calls: ‘We don’t want this school librarian anymore. Eliminate the position and then we’ll open it again later.’ I never know if they do open the job up again or not.” Wichita Public Schools replaced all of its high school librarians with clerks during the 2011–12 school year, Roberts says. Although the district maintains school librarians in elementary schools, and at all but three of its middle schools, Roberts notes that once one district makes changes, others tend to watch, and follow suit. At Derby Public Schools, about 20 miles south of Wichita, the entire district will reportedly be served by just one school librarian in 2015–16. At nearby Maize Unified School District 266, about 15 miles northwest of Wichita, just five school librarians will be on staff this year, according to the district. “The problem is Wichita is the largest,” says Roberts. “And outlying districts see we made the cuts.” Roberts believes the decreasing number of positions for library media specialists in Kansas, and the willingness of districts to replace these spots with clerks, is starting to affect enrollment in library media studies in the state. A former instructor at Wichita State University’s school library media endorsement program, Roberts says that the requirement to become a school librarian is extensive: a bachelor’s and master’s degree, plus a one-year internship. She stopped teaching at the college about five years ago as classes diminished, and she understands why students may not want to consider entering the profession—at least in Kansas. “It’s a slap in the face,” she says. “[You have] all that education and knowledge, and then they replace you with a clerk.”

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