The school library listservs are outraged by the Portland School District’s disrespect for school librarians. How could the home of Powell’s Books do this?
As education funding has been cut over the years and the Internet has become a one-stop shop for research, school librarians have largely gone the way of the card catalog.
Once considered a vital part of every school, they’ve slowly shrunk from full- to half-time in many buildings, have been replaced by librarians’ assistants, or are gone altogether.
Just a third of the schools in the district now have a librarian, and a third of those are half-time positions, according to Susan Stone, the half-time librarian at Mt. Tabor Middle School and president of a group called the Portland Association of School Librarians.
In some cases, Portland school libraries that are no longer staffed are shuttered and used as storage closets, while others – primarily in affluent areas – have been restored with money from the PTA or school foundations.
“If the administration at Lincoln or Cleveland or Grant or Wilson had eliminated the library position, the parents would be up in arms and marching, and it would be restored almost immediately,” said Janet Setness, the Marshall Campus librarian whose position will be cut next year.
“I didn’t march in the ’60s, but I’m working on marching for my kids. Because even though I’m retiring next year, they need someone in my place,” she said.
Marshall, a small-school campus in Southeast, will become the second high school in the district to lose its librarian; Roosevelt, another small-school campus in North Portland, lost its three years ago.
The other small-school campus, Madison, in Northeast, is retaining its librarian for now but has no support staff or budget for books, librarian Nancy Sullivan says.
So she’s been forced to write grants, look for donations and even make and sell T-shirts to buy books.
“They’ve cut everything around me,” Sullivan said. “The textbook clerk, the library clerk, the audiovisual person, the tech person assigned to our building. The library budget for books and materials is zero dollars. … The district spent $14 million on new textbooks and sent them out to schools where there’s no textbook clerks to deal with them.”
Stone – whose position at Mt. Tabor will be cut next fall, too – is working to change the system so that the district funds librarians as a core function at each school, rather than as an “extra” that may be cut to make room for an art teacher or other function.
“It’s pretty atrocious that the profession of certified teachers and librarians has been allowed to diminish in the last 20 years,” she said. “Certainly, site-based decision-making allowed it to happen. But it’s also due to a lack of understanding of how professional librarians have changed.”
Dismayed with the cuts, Stone successfully lobbied the district this spring to hire a full-time person next year who will assess the status of school libraries and begin a strategy for moving forward toward 21st century schools, a big buzzword among administrators.
“(The new position is) a very small step,” she said, “but it’s the biggest step we’ve had in years.”
Prioritize librarian positions
If the district was able to guarantee a librarian at every school, principals wouldn’t have to squeeze that position into their already limited staffing formulas.