As part of a package of spending cuts, the school district plans to reduce the number of hours for certified teacher/librarians at the grade schools with the smallest enrollments. Librarians who worked full-time at one school may work part-time at two schools. Administrators predict the move would save $350,000 next year at a time when the district is cutting about $10.5 million to balance the books.
At last week's school board meeting, several teacher/librarians spoke about their importance in the educational process; they say they teach children how to use computers and how to search for information. Without the librarians, Margie Burke warned, "Kids will be working unsupervised on computers. Books will disappear. Unaccredited people will be running the libraries. I believe we need either accredited teachers in our libraries or we should lock the libraries up. This is an emergency situation until the budget crisis is addressed."
Advocates say they have 800 signatures from people who signed petitions protesting the cuts, including 500 signatures gathered online. Those who registered their displeasure electronically include former state Senator John Moyer, former school board member Carol Wendle and developer Don Barbieri.
The advocates are also enlisting help from school officials in other cities.
"I understand the pressure that you are under as you make your budgetary choices," writes Dr. Peter Blewett, chairman of the Milwaukee school board, in a letter distributed to Spokane school board members. He goes on: "Let me be clear: If you cut the library media specialist positions, you lower the quality of the education that you offer to your students." The advocates argue that's a bad message to send to businesses that might consider Spokane as a future home.
They've also taken their arguments to state senators Lisa Brown and Chris Marr to encourage lawmakers, and especially a new task force formed to study Washington's school funding formulas. They want libraries included in the state's definition of "basic education," meaning they would be funded by state dollars, not by local school levies.
Spokane school officials are happy that community members are contacting their legislators regarding school funding. But the late lobbying may not convince board members to abandon the library cuts.
"We haven't heard any alternatives [to the cuts]," says board President Christie Querna. The school district, she says, is required by law to submit a balanced budget. "Were we to acquiesce to their demands, we would have to take from something else."
"That action," says former Superintendent Brian Benzel, "would likely generate another round of protests and objections from those affected by whatever was being reduced."
Querna also questions the lateness of the pressure. "The Pratt people [advocates to save Pratt School, which the board voted in the spring to close] engaged us early and stayed with us until we made our decision," she says. "These people [library advocates] parachuted in late in the process."
At last week's meeting, board member Sue Chapin asked whether reducing school librarians to part-time would likely lead to decreased literacy and academic achievement.
"There's no real correlation that students' reading achievement is suffering," answered interim Superintendent Nancy Stowell. "Of our seven schools with part-time librarians last year, three had more than 90 percent of students exceeding the reading standard for the fourth-grade WASL, two were in the 80 percent range, one was at 77 percent and the last at 59 percent."
"Obviously the children in those schools are doing well," said Chapin in a later interview. "I certainly hear their [library advocates] position and believe that librarians are very valuable parts of our schools, but so are counselors and art and music teachers and extracurricular activities."