Are school libraries headed toward extinction? LAUSD principals are choosing other ways to spend limited budgets, but some board members want to change that
Mike Szymanski | April 16, 2017
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Five more LA Unified high schools may divert their funding for teacher librarians this fall as principals decide to spend their budgets on other pressing needs, meaning 15 of the 84 high school libraries would not be fully staffed.
The state’s Local Control Funding Formula allows more autonomy for district schools, and library staffing is among the discretionary items. But at an April committee meeting, three school board members indicated they would like to see library positions required at schools. If they enlist a fourth board member, they could make the positions required at schools, even though principals have repeatedly indicated they need autonomy over their budgets.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, the superintendent plans to bring up extra funding for training teacher librarians, and there’s also a resolution on the agenda about National Library Week (which was April 9 – 15), so some of the library issues in the committee report might be discussed and could lead to new stipulations regarding staffing.
“I see this as an equity issue, because the wealthier schools are going to have the families pay for their libraries and the poorer communities won’t be able to,” said George McKenna, one of the board members who indicated at the committee meeting that he would be in favor of requiring principals to fund library positions.
The library issue is an indication of larger problems facing the district. It involves equity of resources throughout the diverse district, how much control schools should have over their budgets, and what to do about an aging and outdated book collection in a district that doesn’t have enough money to keep it up.
The April 4 report to the Budget, Facilities, and Audit Committee on libraries was delivered in response to concerns brought up last year. Mónica Ratliff, the committee’s chair, had requested the report. Ratliff has championed libraries during her four-year term and earlier had tried to change the educational equity standards by upgrading the libraries to state standards through a Modern Library Task Force.
The report presented numbers on how poorly staffed and how outdated the school libraries are, but it also brought up the issue that some principals are diverting money away from libraries. Already, California is at the lowest librarian-to-student ratio in the nation. And a recent study showed that richer high schools have three times as many librarians as poorer ones.
Seth Litt, a former charter high school principal in New York and CEO of Parent Revolution, said California’s low per-pupil funding makes decisions tough for schools. “Yes, it is important to fund a librarian who will help students find a book, but so is a reading intervention teacher, or an EL specialist, or an art teacher,” he said. “With limited resources, those decisions should be made at the school sites with teacher, parent, and community input.”
There are different ways to make decisions concerning libraries, but Litt said that the school board or superintendent shouldn’t take those decisions away from principals. “Those are hard decisions, and it looks terrible that schools have these beautiful libraries and can’t use them, but those decisions should be made at the school level,” Litt said.
Some charter schools in the district are redefining libraries altogether, with libraries that are sparse with books but filled with computers for students to use for research and reading.
“I love books, I can’t help myself, and it makes me sad that I think that there are rooms filled with books that children can’t access,” Ratliff said at the meeting. “If we’re going to have to shut libraries, at least the books need to be distributed to the classrooms. To have them sitting in a locked room is an outrage.”
“I don’t know what is happening, I’m hearing different things,” Esther Solinsky, the district’s administrative coordinator of Integrated Library and Textbook Services, said to the committee. “Yes, some schools are repurposing the funding, but exactly how they will keep (libraries) open, that is much less clear to me at this point.”
A teacher librarian speaking at the meeting said he didn’t think Solinsky had the authority to tell principals that they must staff their libraries. “She can advise, but every expectation is that if principals are given the option the library will disappear or may as well not be there,” he said. “Principals are stressed out. There may be poverty or crime issues, and maybe literacy is not at the top of their priorities.”
More and more, principals are asking for more autonomy from the district, and library staffing is one area in which the superintendent has given schools the right to make their own decisions.
And the result is, according to Kathy Norris from budget services, “there are indications that five high schools are leaning toward using the teacher librarian funding for something that’s not for teacher librarians in this near year’s budget.”
Norris explained, “The goal is to provide schools with local control and give them choices if they feel the resources are better used elsewhere.”
“This is going to be an unmitigated disaster,” said Franny Parrish, the political action chairwoman for the California School Employees Association, the union that represents library aides. “The principals believe you are giving them permission now to put anybody they want in those libraries. Nobody is really addressing this problem.”
The district spends $13.6 million on teacher librarians, who also teach research skills. Lower-paid library aides are not supposed to teach, but they maintain the libraries which are not supposed to be staffed by untrained personnel.
State guidelines recommend that the age of the book collection be no more than 15 years old, and LA Unified’s is 21 years old. They state there should be 28 books per student; there are 18.26 now.
The cost to upgrade the collection would be $15.9 million. To replace 5 percent of the collection every year would cost about $795,000. Staffing to help upgrade the collection would run an additional $1.8 million.
Half the district’s 80 middle schools have a library aide; to fill all the positions, it would cost $1.94 million. Filling all the teacher librarian positions would cost $9.3 million.
Equity was among the biggest concerns expressed by the committee. McKenna, who represents one of the poorest school districts near downtown Los Angeles, said he was concerned about how wealthier areas can raise money for school librarians but communities like his cannot afford it.
“Affluent communities can write checks to keep their libraries open, but I don’t know how you can have a school without a library,” McKenna said. “That’s like a pool without water. You can turn it into a skateboard park or bounce balls around in it, but it’s not the same. How does a school even function without a library?”
Board member Scott Schmerelson, who like McKenna has been a principal, said the board should make the library positions non-negotiable. “The only way to do this is you must have an allocation for a library position and must use it for that.”
Schmerelson said he has talked to principals in his district who wanted to divert the money. “I talked to a principal who said he’d rather buy an extra teacher with that amount of money to reduce class sizes,” Schmerelson said. “And when I happened to mention library aides I got bombarded with insulting notes from teacher librarians who made them sound like they had fallen off a turnip truck. Library aides should be well respected too.”
Ratliff, who is leaving the board in June, said she is concerned that the school board won’t follow up on the libraries. “I’m concerned that we spend millions of dollars on gorgeous libraries and now schools are choosing not to have teacher librarians. I have a problem with that.”
Candace Seale, LA Unified’s specialist for integrated library and textbook services who was giving the report, also noted that there is 24-hours access to online libraries for students. But, of course, they have to have a device to access it.
Seale said only eight schools in the entire district had the “dream team” of properly staffed libraries. They are Meyler Street Elementary, Elizabeth Learning Center, Roy Romer Middle, Young Oak Kim Academy, Hollywood High, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, University High, and Polytechnic High.
Seale used Meyler Street Elementary in Torrance as an excellent example of a school where a teacher librarian was showing students how to research while a library aide helped at the dual-language and International Baccalaureate school.
“That’s fantastic for this elementary, but why should the students at that school have it and others do not? That is my concern,” Ratliff said.
Seale said the program will not continue next year because there isn’t enough funding.
“When I got on the board there were elementary school libraries with inappropriate staffing like parent volunteers, and the board addressed that and opened up a bunch of libraries,” Ratliff said. “I’m concerned that I’m going to leave and without some sort of political will, the libraries will be shut. I want to be very clear that I don’t think it’s right.”
Ratliff added, “Keeping libraries open is very important and if not the board should admit to the world that we are willing to shut our libraries. I hope there is a solution in terms of funding and staffing so libraries can remain and children can develop a love of books and learning.”