Ssshhh! Librarians are known as the protectors of the inner sanctum of the library where people can go to study, read up on the latest J.K. Rowling masterpiece or research their latest project.
The Salem-Keizer Budget Committee was tasked with shoring up a $55 million general fund shortfall. The move to cut elementary and middle school librarians, approved by the budget committee last week, would save the district $3.8 million or 6.1 percent of the total needed to be cut from the budget. At the beginning of the next school year, the libraries will be devoid of its protector.
They did not go gently into that good night. Supporters amassed an army of protesters to organize rallies in support of the cause and made strong appearances at the various budgeting meetings. They’re not as worried about the loss of a job as much as they are concerned for the student population that would not be getting necessary skills for the 21st century. Peggy Mishke is the librarian at Pringle Elementary and has been doing what she loves for six years.
Librarians know that a well rounded student is crucial. So any cuts are going to be tough. “We are not saying we don’t deserve a cut. But we want a more equitable distribution of cuts. All programs are important, but for us a 91 percent budget cut from one area is unbelievable,” she says.
Karma Krause, special projects facilitator at Salem-Keizer Public Schools, says that the budget does include the elimination of other full programs, like swimming, career and technical programs, and middle school wrestling and volleyball. “Some programs are taking as high or higher reductions.”
Cuts were made by the committee in the following order: reduce purchases and supplies, spend money in reserves, reduce the central office, reduce support service, and then reduce instructional programs and positions.
“The hope is that all the savings needed can be found before getting to the bottom of the list. But at a certain point reserves are depleted, supplies can only go so low, and so on. Because the deficit is so huge, it’s not possible to find $55 million in savings without looking at the classroom, which means programs and teachers,” Krause says.
The fear among professional librarians is that once the program is gone, when the economy turns around the program won’t exist. “The economy will turn around, we want to have a program of some type to build back up,” Mishke adds.
Elementary and middle school librarians do more than monitor use of the collections. “The things we teach are valuable in the 21st century. We are teaching how to use computers, internet safety, and these skills are invaluable and we are willing to keep fighting for them,” says Mishke.
An average of 500 students a week utilize the work that elementary media teachers do, Mishke says that students receive a grade in media. “The expectation is that some of these lessons and skill building is going to be passed on to teachers. With bigger classroom sizes I don’t see that happening.”
The future of the media grade is still in question. Krause says, “At the elementary schools, a committee is looking at how schools could incorporate education of those expected proficiencies into the current general education curriculum.”
In addition, librarians support lessons plans and work to achieve cross curricular goals. “This decision isn’t just going to affect second graders. This decision impacts the student population, and the teachers, and what teachers are able to do with students,” says Mishke.
Without the staff support to keep the collection current and kids learning new skills, librarians are hopeful that the students who have benefitted from the program will retain the information. “The library will be quiet,” says Mishke. “Students will have about 15 minutes a week for check-out and that is it. The playground will see more action than the library.”
The district is developing a plan that includes increasing the availability of library media instructional assistants to help teachers provide library media instruction and to, also, keep libraries open. That is a tough pill to swallow for the librarians who have countless stories of students who are focused on books.
“I have students who come to me and ask for the next new book,” Mishke says. “That is not going to be happening. They will be reading the same magazines for the next three to five years.” Librarians know that new books are a luxury and the decision to buy is tough on parents. “There are so many families that are fighting just as hard as everyone else to put food on the table, drive to work and heat their home.”
Budget deficits are not a problem faced solely by Salem-Keizer. The problem is spread throughout Oregon’s school districts. Portland Public Schools and Beaverton have the same library cuts on the table. Beaverton School District gave the librarians a full time presence, last week, after a five-hour power struggle. But the positions remain at “high risk.”
According the district’s website dedicated to answering budget questions, Portland schools have additional revenue sources, a local tax, that helps reduce their deficit. The Salem-Keizer district is not pursuing something similar for the area, instead as Krause says it would be the community’s responsibility to propose such a tax.
The cuts are not quite the surprise that they have seemed. In the 2009-2010 school year, the district cut around $27 million. This school year, the district cut another $24 million.
“Salem-Keizer has been able to postpone major reductions in the last few years by spending reserves and federal stimulus funds,” says Krause.
Some have questioned why the district is building new schools, while simultaneously closing others. That is explained away easily.
“The schools are still being built because it’s what the community said they wanted when passing the 2008 construction bond. Overcrowding in our schools is a real concern, in particular in West Salem. New schools will relieve overcrowding and provide room for future enrollment growth,” Krause says.
Law requires that the bond funds be spent on projects associated with the construction and renovation. They cannot be used for costs of operating schools.
She also says that newer facilities are more efficient to operate which would result in lower overall costs. “Plus building new schools helps the community by keeping workers employed,” she adds. Over 300 employees of Salem-Keizer Public Schools will lose their positions within the district.
Salem-Keizer librarians fear these decision to cut the librarians for Salem because of the lack of public library branches. “Our school libraries act as branch libraries for our students,” says Elizabeth Beazizo, West Salem High School librarian. With only one library and one branch library, students do not have easy access to the public library. “These students are going to come into high school without the basic library research skills that they need, and social studies and English teachers are going to have to go back to basics and teach those skills,” Beazizo says.
The Salem Public Library is available for students, but isn’t going to pick up the slack. “Our budgets have been slightly reduced for the upcoming budget. We will see a reduction felt by the library. We are talking 58 schools that will not have a librarian. There is no way with our current staff we could address the needs of that many schools,” says Salem Public Library Administer B.J Toewe. “There is no way we can take the place of school librarians. Every day they deliver the lessons on how to access information, and that happens from grade school on up. Although as people come into the library, we are happy to teach them how to access information.”
Toewe knows that not all parents will be able to get children to the library. “We will continue to reach out with our bookmobile. The R.E.A.D program introduces the public library to first graders. The program has been partially funded by the Assistance League of Salem since 1994. The students get to sign up for a library card and check out a book,” says Toewe.
“By cutting librarians, we are teaching our students to not think, just be sheep,” Beazizo says.
What will also be missing is the personal connections made with students, librarians have a special duty to ignite a student’s love of the written word.
“I think a big piece of the job is fostering the love of reading. We show kids not just the newest books, but books they might like. It’s about getting to know kids on a personal basis and to keep them reading. Whenever I get a load of books in, I see authors and topics and I have specific kids in mind,” says Mishke.
Librarians believe that the love they foster for knowledge and reading is an important part of elementary school. “It’s a relationship that develops between readers and librarians,” says Beazizo. “I can see as a parent and a grandparent the way my granddaughter talks about her school librarian. It’s a positive relationship that is built so that children view the library as a positive force in their lives.”
Krause says that it’s impossible to predict if or when employees will be brought back to campus.
“Recalls hinge on increased funding for our school district, which is dependent on state tax revenues and the economy. The school district really hopes to be able to have recalls, but the funding future is unknown.”
More information on the school budget cuts are available on the Salem-Keizer School District’s website at http://www.salkeiz.k12.or.us/budget-concerns.