School Library Jobs At Risk in D.C.

Library media specialists and library advocates are concerned about the loss of jobs and impact on the nearly 50,000 students in the nation's capital.

There is concern—and a call to action—in Washington, DC, where school librarians fear their jobs are in danger and Washington could go the way of Chicago and Philadelphia, cities that decimated school library staff.

Jerry Craft tweets support to DCPS librariansThe possibility of cuts to the programs became clear when DC Public Schools (DCPS) revealed its staff "flexibility levels" to "provide greater transparency and understanding to the budget making process." Library media specialists (LMS) are Level 2 (L2) staff—“flexible with petition"—which means principals can petition to redirect the money used for those positions to something else in the school if they can give a good enough reason and “demonstrate how they will meet related programmatic requirements.”

In recent years, the district's librarians believed they were classified as required staff (Level 1) whose funding couldn't be touched. As the outcry increased against cutting DCPS chancellor Lewis Ferebee released a statement saying DCPS funding for school librarians has not changed, but that these flexibility levels were unclear in past years.

Library staff and advocates read the clarification as a clear threat to their programs. 

“Last year, they did a sweep of central office, now they’re trying to hit the schools,” said DCPS LMS K.C. Boyd. They are looking for the positions that, if eliminated, will impact the kids the least, Boyd said. “In their mindset, that’s libraries.”

Some principals just don’t understand the LMS job or impact, Boyd said, noting librarians teach literacy, technology, social-emotional learning, and play a large role in improved test scores. They are also liaisons with the parents and communities.

Even for principals who know all of this, with difficult decisions to make, librarians’ salaries make vulnerable to cuts. 

“A librarian on average has a master’s degree plus; many of our librarians have teaching degrees already,” she said. “That’s potentially a very expensive employee in front of you.”

Boyd has seen districts eliminate librarians before, and while she believes her position is safe, she’s going to do everything she can to stop it.

“I’m still going to fight for these librarians because if one person is experiencing this, everyone is,” said Boyd, who went from Chicago Public Schools to DC. “I’m going to try to nip this in the bud right now. ... While librarians are fighting for their jobs, our ultimate concern is for the students we serve."

Boyd has been a leading voice on social media trying to raise public awareness of the situation, using the hashtag #DCPSNeedsLibrarians. Many have tweeted their support, including parents, students, and even 2020 Newbery winner Jerry Craft. and EveryLibrary, a national nonprofit library advocacy organization, has also joined the fight.

KC Boyd spoke in support of DCPS librarians at an oversight hearing

Boyd spoke in support of DC students and school librarians at a
Committee on Education's Performance Oversight Hearing
on Wednesday February 18.

“In other cities across the country, the first step in losing school librarians has always been to move the decision making about school libraries to the school principals,” Patrick Sweeney, political director at EveryLibrary, said via email. “This often gets pitched as, ‘We're giving the school more autonomy and choice.’ But in practice, this means that principals can simply remove school librarians or slowly defund the school library until there's no funding for school library services and then they can make the argument that the library doesn't provide any services so it should be cut. That is the process that we've seen in both Chicago and Philadelphia and in entire states like Michigan.”

Schools do want autonomy, said Washington Teachers Union (WTU) spokesman Joe Weedon, but with proper funding, not when it means being forced to make one bad decision in lieu of another. The union believes there could be substantial cuts to library programs for next year.

With librarians designated L2 with teachers of subjects such as art, music, languages, etc., those positions can be used to fill in the gaps needed to meet the L1 staff. At Level 3—“flexible” and budgeted at the principal’s discretion—Weedon says, there isn’t much to take. The support staff positions found in that employment category (such as school registrar) are needed, and schools don’t really have the option of eliminating those positions to free up that funding. 

Principals had to get their budgets in by last week. The petitions are reviewed by the principal's instructional superintendent who will work with DCPS to finalize the budget requests over the next week, according to a DCPS spokesperson.

At least two schools have filed such petitions, but the outcome of those—and the total number of similar petitions—will not be known until school budgets are released in March. In a district with mayoral control, though, it will be up to the city council and the mayor. In the past, Weedon said, the city council has found money to continue funding programs or even increase funding for others.

But there are other budgetary issues to consider that complicate matters. The administrators’ contract calls for an increase in their salaries for the 2020–21 school year. Also, the district is going to change its funding model after next year, and the union—which is currently working under the terms of a deal that expired in September 2019—is negotiating a contract that could also impact future budgets.

The mayor will release the budget proposal on March 19. At that point, Weedon said, the public should also see a school-by-school budget breakdown showing which principals have petitioned to eliminate the librarian positions.

“I do believe that there will be some level of transparency in the decision-making process about eliminating school librarians,” Sweeney said. “It will be up to those of us working on the ground to continue to ask questions and poke and prod at administrators and principals to ensure that we are receiving information from them in a timely manner.”

The public can help, Sweeney said. And not just the people of DC.

“The biggest thing that anyone, anywhere in the country can do is sign petitions at saveschoollibrarians.org and then please share those petitions and ask your friends and family to also sign them,” he said. “This petition platform, thanks to funding from Follett, is what has allowed us to continue to rally Americans to support school libraries across the country. This is what shows state and federal legislators that Americans support school libraries, and it's also how we identify new library supporters to contact in times of crisis.”

It worked recently in Davenport, IA, even though there was only a 48-hour window for public comment before the vote, Sweeney said.

“While thankfully, we happened to have a few hundred identified library supporters in the area who we were able to rally to contact the school district and reinstate the 22 school librarian positions that were threatened, this isn't always the case,” he said. “In DC we have a few thousand library supporters that we can immediately contact, so we should, theoretically, be able to keep supporters informed fairly quickly. But the more people who we can contact who care about libraries, the better position we will be in.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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Jennifer Saunders

Unfortunately, students in the Atlanta Public School system in Atlanta, Georgia are being short changed in the name of flexibility and autonomy. 17 traditional public schools currently do not have a certified school library media specialist with at least 6 more cuts to be made next year. In a district where 85% of Black students are not proficient readers, it just doesn’t make sense to cut the position of the person who is a champion for literacy. There is a misconception that our school library media specialists aren’t teachers when in fact we teach every child in the school- especially on the elementary level. I cannot believe that in a district with such alarmingly low reading results that the “all hands on deck” approach excludes the specialist in literacy- the media specialist. I believe that because there is not always an immediate result of the impact of a media specialist, that position is deemed unnecessary. In reality, the effect a school library media specialist has on children is often evident years later. Isn’t this the goal of developing students ready for college and career? Are we only teaching for immediate results and not to better the future of our communities and country? This movement to eliminate our certified media specialists is disheartening and unfair for our students. We aren’t giving them our best. And all of this for the sake of flexibility and autonomy. Shame on those who make the decision that free choice reading is not important.

Posted : Feb 23, 2020 02:08


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