School district deals with cuts to librarians
June 4, 2009
By Laura Geggel
Eighth-grader Danielle Burns remembers researching a report on Athena during her sixth-grade year at Snoqualmie Middle School. She asked school librarian Leisa Fowler for help, and soon had a stack of books on the Greek goddess to use as resources.
Fowler also teaches sixth-grade students how to find books in the library, cite their sources in a bibliographical format and employ various reading and researching skills during their bimonthly library lessons.
Next year, these educational sessions will be out of Fowler’s hands. The Snoqualmie Valley School District is cutting all of the librarians at its three middle schools and high school. Two of the librarians, who have teaching certificates, will go back into the classroom. The other two are being laid off.
The decision arose when school principals met together with school district administrators and explored ways to reduce their budgets. Each school had to comply with the district’s $4.1 million in cuts.
“We have to prioritize our thinking,” Snoqualmie Valley Superintendent Joel Aune said.
“We’re faced with having to make cuts of this magnitude, and that prioritization has forced us to make some difficult decisions.”
Mount Si High School Principal Randy Taylor said the cuts affected more than the library. The high school’s math and English departments just lost five teachers, he said. If the district is unable to hire them back, Taylor will have to internally move teachers from other departments to make up for the loss. With the loss of teachers, Taylor said the average class size of 27 to 30 per class will likely jump to 30 to 33 students per class in 2009-10.
“I hope this is not a long-term budget issue,” Taylor said, although many predict that the following year’s budget may be in worse financial straits than this year’s.
The district cut its librarians so it could salvage its other core programs, said District Teaching and Learning Director Don McConkey. The district kept its elementary school librarians because library is a weekly class for its students.
“In elementary school, the classroom teachers have a 30-minute planning period each day,” McConkey said. “In order to have that planning period, the kids need to go somewhere. At the middle and high school level, that’s not a requirement.”
The district’s middle and high school librarians protest that while much of their work is behind the scenes, it is a keystone in school learning and culture. They collaborate with teachers and each other to ensure students are learning the essential researching skills that will prepare them for the next level of education.
“I’m way more concerned about this as a parent than I am as a librarian,” said Twin Falls Middle School Librarian Karen Andring, whose son attends Twin Falls.
A collection of 16 studies across the nation show that students who attend schools with a full-time librarian are more likely to score better on standardized tests. A 2002 study in Iowa showed that elementary students who scored better on standardized tests used 2.5 times as many books and other materials during library visits.
Students who attend schools with updated library collections tend to score higher on the ACT test and have better writing scores on standardized tests, according to a 2003 Illinois study.
“We librarians, we’re kind of on the cutting edge on how to locate information in all of its various formats,” Mount Si High School Elaine Harger said. “Our skills are essential ones for students to be exposed to and to learn from.”
McConkey acknowledged the research after the librarians directed him to several studies, but he did not let it affect the district’s decision to proceed with the cuts.
“When you look at library services or your music program or your physical education program or your art programs, they all have bodies of research that support their impact on student learning,” McConkey said. “You have to look at research that impacts other areas as well.”
There is no definitive plan for how the libraries will function next year. Each middle and high school library will be open, but it is up to the principal to decide how to run it, such as with classified staff, teachers or community volunteers.
“In terms of the kids and their access to our libraries, we fully intend to explore some creative way to keep our school libraries open,” Snoqualmie Valley Superintendent Joel Aune said.
The library and students
Mount Si Librarian Elaine Harger, one of the teachers being laid off, reeled through her daily responsibilities. In addition to helping students with research needs and assignments, she develops and maintains the library’s collection and databases. She teaches students how to use library programs like ProQuest and JSTOR, both of which are used at the university level.
Students begin to learn researching skills at the elementary level, but the sophistication of expected research increases with each grade level. Librarians know at what level each child is supposed to be and help reinforce the basics while encouraging them to pursue other research venues.
“I am just tremendously concerned about the high school,” Chief Kanim Middle School Janna Treisman said. “Having a high school library that is not run by a high school librarian is incredibly scary.”
Andring said she teaches students the difference between primary and secondary sources and routinely works with teachers to develop lesson plans.
“The kids are downing in an ocean of over-information,” Andring said. “They’ve not been given enough opportunity to learn how to navigate sources of information or how to think about the information they’re looking at.”
Without the middle and high school librarians, students may not learn the skills they need to navigate other libraries in their lives.
“It is the role of the school librarians to teach students how to use the library resources,” Harger said. “The public library does not do that.”
The librarians said they encouraged reading for pleasure, as well, and lend an ear to students who need to speak with an adult.
“I feel like I am one of the few people in the building who gets to know all of the kids,” Fowler said. “They are here before school and after school.”
McConkey called the librarians an important asset, but said their responsibilities would fall on teachers next year.
That load could not so easily be shifted to their shoulders, Treisman said.
“Teachers are really overloaded because of curriculum changes,” she said. “What librarians do with teachers is a collaboration. It’s not just somebody who says get me all of the books on ancient Egypt.”
The future of school libraries
The school district may be able to reinstate several of the programs and staff it cut when the final 2009-10 budget is known, but McConkey said the likelihood of hiring back the librarians was low.
“Right now, there are so many things on the list that the (school) board would like to see restored first,” McConkey said. “A lot of it depends on what amount and to what degree our district becomes healthier.”
The middle and high schools have another organization to reckon with, the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools.
Joe Pope, the association’s executive secretary, said that schools all over the Northwest have been making budget cuts akin to Snoqualmie Valley’s. While the association requires that schools of a certain size have librarians, Pope said the association would be more flexible in light of the budget restraints. If the school cuts other areas, such as school counselors or administrators, it would be more in danger of losing its accreditation.
“It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone to have to go through these kinds of reductions,” Aune said. “At the same time, the reality is what it is.”
But Harger said the cuts would come back to affect the district’s students.
“Throughout the country, because of the economic situation, public libraries are being used more than they ever have been. This is a clear indication that people throughout the country know about the importance of libraries,” Harger said. “The fact that the school district and the principals have decided to cut library programs shows how disconnected they are from the importance and the value from this part of the schools in the district.”
Reach reporter Laura Geggel at 392-6434 .221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.