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Budget cuts felt in elementary school libraries

Non-mandated positions eliminated out of fiscal necessity

Sunday, February 17, 2013
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— Elizabeth Yanoff recently wrote Niskayuna Central School District officials a letter urging them to reconsider proposed reductions in funding for the district’s libraries and library media specialists.

“In the 21st century, a librarian does much more than shelve books,” wrote Yanoff, an assistant professor of teacher education at The College of Saint Rose in Albany. “Niskayuna librarians help students develop literacy and technology skills to access, use and create information.”

Yanoff has a son in fourth grade at Rosendale Elementary School and a daughter in seventh grade at Iroquois Middle School.

“It’s important to note that librarians are teachers,” she said. “They teach reading. They teach literacy. They have direct contact with all students.”

Niskayuna’s budget under discussion could cut one full-time elementary school librarian through retirement, saving the district $55,000. The district’s two smallest elementary schools would share a certified librarian.

In recent years, elementary school librarians have been vulnerable, as cash-strapped school districts look to trim expenses. Though librarians are required in grades 7-12, they are not mandated at the elementary level. Some elementary schools have reduced their library staffing through attrition, others through cuts.

“If the first time you interact with a school librarian is middle school, you’re already a step behind,” said Jeremy Johannesen, group’s executive director of the New York Library Association.

Districts that have reduced the number of elementary school librarians have coped in a variety of ways, according to J’aime Pfeiffer, program manager of the school library system for Capital Region BOCES. For instance, a librarian might run two or three libraries, traveling between schools and maintaining more limited hours.

“As much as possible, schools are trying to hold on to their librarians,” Pfeiffer said. “Most administrators understand the need for having a certified librarian whenever possible.”

In nine of the 25 elementary schools that belong to Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES, the libraries are now run by aides and teaching assistants, according to Deborah Booth, coordinator of instructional technology and information resource services for H-F-M BOCES.

Booth said that districts are reluctant to cut certified librarians.

“They’ve done it out of budget necessity,” she said. “When you’re looking for things to cut, you’re looking at non-mandated positions, and elementary school librarians are not mandated.”

The recession and slow recovery have been especially tough on smaller, more rural districts, Booth said.

“They have smaller populations, smaller tax bases,” she said. “They’ve got a much smaller budget base.”

Suburban districts have also cut librarians.

Last year, the Scotia-Glenville Central School District reduced the number of certified librarians at its elementary schools from four to three after a longtime employee retired. The district’s largest elementary school, Sacandaga, still has a full-time librarian, while the other two full-time librarians travel between the district’s three smaller elementary schools, according to Robert Hanlon, a spokesman for the district. He said that the libraries are always open, and teachers can use them even when they are not staffed by a librarian.

“It’s not ideal, but that’s how we had to do it,” Hanlon said.

Hanlon said that elementary school students still have weekly “library time” where they visit the library and learn how to do research and find books, but that some students receive “a little less” library time than they would have before the librarian position was cut.

“Our hope is that teachers are filling in the gap,” he said.

Last year, Scotia-Glenville cut $2.3 million from its budget, losing the equivalent of more than 40 full-time positions.

“Ideally, we’d like one librarian in every elementary school,” Hanlon said. “I don’t know if it would be the first position we would restore.”

In its 2010-11 budget, the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District cut librarians and library clerks, reducing the number of librarians at the district’s three elementary schools from 51⁄2 to five, and the number of library clerks from five to two.

Though the district’s preliminary budget for 2013-14 has not yet been released, Christy Multer, a district spokeswoman, said it was unlikely to cut the library staff further.

“Nobody has mentioned anything about library positions,” she said.

BOCES staff who work with public school librarians anticipate that the preliminary budgets for 2013-14 will bring more cuts to elementary school library staffs.

“We expect some cuts this year,” said Paige Jaeger, coordinator for school library services for Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES.

The New York Library Association, which represents libraries throughout the state, is concerned about cuts to school libraries and has started reaching out to districts that are considering trimming elementary school librarian positions, according to Johannesen.

“We understand that the tax cap puts a tremendous strain on districts to fund the programs that they have to fund,” he said. “My fear is that by the time we get to better days we will have dismantled the library system so much we won’t have anything to rebuild. Once you take something apart, it’s harder to restart.”

Johannesen said that the NYLA is “actively working” to figure out how many elementary school librarian positions have been cut statewide in recent years.

The cuts to elementary school library staffs come at a time when school librarians are more important than ever, Jaeger said. She said that librarians have a crucial role to play in implementing the new Common Core learning standards — national academic standards that emphasize reading, writing, research and information.

“The Common Core requires students to read more, and to read more difficult material,” Jaeger said. “Information is a big focus of the Common Core. We need librarians now more than ever.”

Pfeiffer agreed.

“The Common Core is asking that students do a lot more reading across all areas,” she said. “Teachers don’t always know where to go to get resources and informational texts, and the obvious person to ask is the librarian. If that person isn’t in the building, who do you go to?”

“Librarians are teachers,” Booth said. At schools that lack a librarian, “students are losing out, because they are not learning basic skills, skills that are helpful when you go to college.”

One of the New York Library Association’s legislative priorities this year is a bill that would amend education law to encourage schools to allow school librarians to teach digital literacy in grades K-12. Right now, the law allows schools to offer a course on Internet safety; a digital literacy course, Johannesen said, would encompass a broader range of topics, such as how to access and share online information.

Johannesen said that, if passed, the bill would strengthen the position of elementary school librarians by making them responsible for teaching digital literacy. But he noted that the bill would not require the teaching of digital literacy in public schools, and wouldn’t necessarily result in more librarians at the elementary school level.

“I don’t anticipate any changes as far as requiring school librarians in the near term,” he said. “That would immediately be labeled an unfunded mandate.”

 
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