While Spokane School Librarians Brace To Lose Jobs, State Passes New Budget

The late-night legislation might make a difference for the city's school librarians, but right now, the proposal remains to eliminate all school librarian position next year.

In a last-minute legislative deal on Sunday night, Washington State lawmakers passed a budget that could change the fate of the Spokane Public Schools’ librarians.

“We are still working through the particulars of the legislative action,” Spokane district spokesman Brian Coddington said in an email on Monday. “Those details will be factored into our budget discussion over the next four months.”

The impact will become clearer over time, but the deal could provide a lifeline for the district’s librarians who are currently planning to move to classrooms next year or be out of a job completely. On April 14, the district announced that due to a $31 million budget deficit it would be eliminating all of its librarian positions, moving those with the most seniority into classrooms to teach, laying off those with less, and “changing the model” of a school library.

“Students will still have access to library books and materials the same way they do now,” Coddington said at the time of the announcement.

Critics of the plan say that is not enough. Ed Lazowska—Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington and senior data science fellow at the University of Washington eScience Institute—is a long-time advocate of school libraries.

“Visiting a strange city with an experienced guide—a person who specializes in understanding your interests and abilities, and using detailed knowledge to match them to the options that are available—is vastly more rewarding and more efficient than traveling alone,” he says. “That's the role of the school librarian: helping kids to navigate literature and technology, and helping them to acquire the skills to become self-sufficient. I have to believe that students would be far better served if school librarians were retained and positions in the district office were eliminated.”

When Lisa Layera first heard the news about the Spokane school librarians a couple of weeks ago—something she called a “decimation of library information programs”—she says it was “surreal.” Layera was one of three women who became known as the Spokane Moms (left) in 2008. When the district was going to cut elementary school librarians at that time, the three created a grassroots movement that restored funding and positions. They also became a model for library advocacy across the country.

As Layera thought more about the current situation, she didn’t consider it an affront to her efforts all those years ago. She instead thought about what they had learned at that time and realized this could be an opportunity for the city and the state.

“I have honestly evolved in the last week or so to say this is the best thing that could have happened,” Layera says. “What we learned over a decade ago was this idea that it’s nobody’s fault per se. The districts aren’t the bad guy. The superintendents aren’t to blame. These are strictly budgetary decisions, so we spent a lot of time going back and forth after the famous multimillion dollar allocation, and it was really about policy language.”

Advocates and school boards might be able to find the money for another year or two, but that is not the answer. There needs to be a legislative change that makes it impossible for school librarians and their programs to be cut from districts, she says. Layera calls this moment a “huge opportunity.”

“Over a decade ago, the questions were, ‘Does this matter? Are libraries and librarians going to become obsolete?’ I think it’s clear that is no longer a question,” she says. “I hope the legislature will once and for all close off this loop and permanently fund the program through allocations, technology and library materials and teacher librarians.”

While the state legislature didn’t go that far this week, it took a step that may help restore some of the positions in the district. Time will tell, as the state’s budget is reviewed and district budgets evaluated.

In an interview with SLJ, Coddington could not say how many library positions the district had or the proposal’s financial impact on the budget deficit. For the students, who have shown their support with walkouts and public statements, every librarian lost will have a big impact.

A letter to the editor written by one North Central High School student, however, makes it clear that a librarian is about more than granting kids access to books and materials, especially in the older grades. Her school’s librarian, Robert Jinishian, is their instructor not only for those involved in Capstone projects and to prepare students heading to college. He is also giving them the information they need to be educated citizens.

“Mr. Jinishian is a reference librarian, which means that he functions as much more than just a book catalogue,” junior Kendra Potratz wrote. “In fact, in all the times that I have received help from Mr. Jinishian not once was I looking for a book to check out. As a reference librarian, Mr. Jinishian assists students in navigating a world of media. In an era of “fake news,” free uncensored sharing, and bold headlines that border on being total fibs, students are often left struggling to know what kinds of sources they can trust. Mr. Jinishian helps us to find those credible sources and, most importantly, teaches us to recognize the fake ones so that when we leave North Central we are prepared not only to navigate but also to utilize Internet media for ourselves.”

Jinishian was touched by the letter. Formerly an elementary school librarian, he says when you do that job right, kids “adore” you. At the high school level, it’s more about gaining respect. Since the April 14 announcement, he has heard from students like Potratz who are speaking up about his impact on them.

“It’s super gratifying to know you are valued,” says Jinishian, who has been at the high school level for 14 of his 19 years as a school librarian. He loves having a new challenge each day, never knowing what information or technology needs his students will have. He takes pride in each message of thanks from past graduates who tell him how what he taught them made them more prepared for the future.

“I don’t know if I can put into words how much or the ways that I will miss it because it’s been such an integral part of my life,” he says. “When I left elementary, I missed them a lot but I was still doing the work that I loved and the work that, in my opinion, garners results for kids. So I will miss it probably more than I can imagine. I can’t imagine going through a day the rest of my teaching life not thinking about when I was a librarian.”

Meanwhile, he is preparing to be a third grade classroom teacher next year.

“I’m going to fall in love with 17 third graders, and I’m going to do my damndest for 17 third graders for however many years I’ve got left doing this job. But this is such a cool gig. I don’t ever wake up in the morning and say ‘Oh my god, I have to go to work.’ I don’t ever do a countdown to the end of the year. I just dig my job.”

The Spokane school board must vote on a plan by the end of August. Between now and then, the city’s school librarians and the community must rally to tell local politicians that library programs and librarians are important. Coddington repeatedly pointed out that while eliminating the library positions is the current proposal, it is all an ongoing discussion until the school board must make its final vote.

“In advocacy, nothing is ever a done deal,” says Layera. “Every phone call, every engagement with your parent community, your business community [can make a difference]. That would be my big message.”

Librarians need to spread the word about what they do, but the community has to say it’s a priority and it should be a priority to the community for many reasons, she says. For the business community, it’s about keeping residents who might want to move for their children to have better schools. For parents, it’s about getting their children the education they need to be prepared for the future. To Layera, it’s a fight not only for education but equity.

“A kid in a small-town in rural Washington could have the same shot at a career as a kid in Seattle,” she says. “That’s profound. That is the modern teacher librarian, who is able to say with these allocations at the state level, we’re going to have a library info technology program that leveled the playing field for all of our kids.”

While others may be disheartened, at best, by the situation in Spokane, Layera truly sees this crisis as an opportunity, this moment as a chance to make a stand for school libraries and certified librarians for good and not watch the profession disappear in the second-largest district in the state.

“My hope is 10 years from now, this story is a retrospective about a turning point,” she says.

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Kara Yorio

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

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ELIZABETH MABEY

The strength of the advocacy network in this community is admirable. I hope they find another way forward that doesn't involve eliminating this category, as my district did decades ago. But I'll say that what blew me away in this article was the number 17. I thought at first it was a typo until I looked it up.

Posted : May 02, 2019 03:29


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