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Federal Way school district may sacrifice librarians to save budget

Ohanian Comment: California has been doing this for year--eliminating professional librarians and putting in aides to run the library. The state reading scores reflect this. The truly outrageous aspect here is that four principals recommended the cuts on the grounds that libraries were the area that would least affect student achievement.

I once was fortunate enough to work in a New York school where the principal placed the greatest emphasis possible on the library as the center of learning. My job title was changed from remedial reading teacher to library resource teacher. Same kids but the emphasis was telling. The state library system gave me a grant to buy hands-on materials; so did the Music and Art Curriculum Director in my own district. Inspectors from the state reading department came to see what caused student scores to rise so dramatically. I have to say this group did not have a clue about the relationship between bulding truss bridges or measuring the melting time of ice cubes, the library, and reading scores.

Oh, neither the director of reading in my district nor the language arts coordinator ever took a peek at my classroom.

By David Montgomery

As Puget Sound school districts prepare their budgets and propose cuts for next year, one district may trim a cherished position: the school librarian.

Federal Way Superintendent Tom Murphy has recommended a budget that aims to avoid a $4 million shortfall largely through slashing the number of librarians from 34 to seven. Each school currently has one librarian; the recommendation would give each school a librarian one day a week.

"The effects will be dramatic," said Chad Marsh, Decatur High School's librarian. "We're going to be sending students out from our high schools that aren't as well-prepared as students from communities that have library programs that are well-staffed and well-funded."

The budget proposal, which the Federal Way School Board will vote on after a public hearing Tuesday, would allow noncertificated aides to operate school libraries on days the librarian wasn't there. Currently, librarians run the libraries, work with teachers to develop curriculum related to books and help teach kids how to manage information they find in research.

If the School Board approves the plan, the district's remaining librarians would focus more on educational activities and less on motivating kids to read. The librarians whose positions have been cut would be shifted into teaching jobs to fill vacancies, though some librarians say they would resign and look for library work elsewhere.

For Federal Way principals, who recommended the cuts to Murphy after months of heated debate,

"We would not have voted for anything that would have hurt children," said Lake Grove Principal Judith Lemmel, a former librarian. "I think every school should have a full-time librarian. But if it means I have to give up my reading facilitator and my math facilitator, that's where our rub was."

That explanation doesn't fly with opponents of the library cuts, who think the district administration should have taken a bigger hit. The 2006 budget proposal cuts $1.2 million from administration and support, $1.5 million by eliminating librarian positions and more than $800,000 in other school-based cuts including aides who work with English-language learners. Combined with an increase in fees, officials say, this will balance the budget.

At a June 13 board meeting, board President Evelyn Castellar asked district CFO Sally McLean to come up with a "Plan B" that would limit the number of elementary librarians who would be cut by using some of the district's reserves.

"I think the elementary librarians do a lot more reading and teaching to our students," Castellar said.

For Jonathan Harkness, a sharp critic of the changes and the husband of a Federal Way librarian (one of the seven who will remain in the libraries), there's still more to be taken from the administration. He points to the more than $484,000 that, collectively, the superintendent and three assistants earn annually.

"You have administrators deciding it's more important to fund administrators' salaries than what is important for children," Harkness said.

Murphy pointed out that Federal Way devotes a smaller percent of its budget to administration than almost any other district in the state. "The next cuts in administration, the board's going to have to decide what functions they don't want ... anymore," he said.

While other school districts have cut library funding in budget crises, Federal Way appears to be making more drastic cuts. Jan Walsh, the Washington state librarian, said that the largest library cuts she knew of in recent years involved four positions in Burlington, Skagit County, in 2003. Walsh attended the recent board meeting to protest the cuts.

At that meeting, more than 30 teachers, students, administrators and community members spoke against the cuts. If the Federal Way school library cuts occur, the King County Library System expects to see more students in its branches, more often.

Lisa Barkhurst, a children's librarian at the Federal Way 320th Library, said that would be difficult. "They do so much work there; there's no way that the King County libraries could make up the difference," she said.

One potential wrinkle in the district's plan is a grievance that the Federal Way Education Association (FWEA) may file. The district plans to operate the libraries with paraprofessionals and have certificated librarians focus on teaching reading, but FWEA President Shannon Rasmussen said that violates the teachers' contract. Murphy said a successful grievance would lead the school district to close the libraries when a librarian wasn't present.


— David Montgomery
Seattle Times




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