Over the past decade, Kansas has cut 25 percent of its public school librarians. In many schools, librarians are being replaced by media clerks, who are paid hourly wages and may lack teaching credentials. School administrators say the cuts are due to a number of departments competing for limited dollars left in the budget. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports.
Buried deep in the compound that is the Wichita Public School Service Center, you can find the district’s snowplows, extra hot dog buns and a wood shop. You’ll also find Sheri Roberts, in the midst of a mountain of textbooks.
Roberts works in the Library Media and Textbook Services Department for Wichita Public Schools. In this cavernous office, thousands of books are lined up on row after row of shelves, ready to be distributed to local schools.
“We receive all of the library books that are ordered," Roberts says. "The actual school librarians choose those books, and they submit those lists to us, and we submit those to the vendors.”
It’s not just books, but also CDs, DVDs, puppets and materials for standardized testing. It’s a vast system, and it takes a lot of work to organize this inventory—work that’s become a bit more stressful over the years.
“I first came to this department 13 years ago," Roberts says. "There were 12 people in the department, and we are down to seven now. And we, at that time, just took care of the library side, and we’ve had added the textbooks side—we've doubled our work and halved our staff.”
Roberts says the Wichita Public School District has been dealing with limited budgets for about five years, and cuts to the district’s library system have been severe.
There are no librarians in any of the district’s high schools. Instead, they’re staffed with media clerks, who look after the library, but aren’t required to have a teaching certificate or a degree in library sciences.
“Obviously, I feel like that had a huge impact on our students," she says. "But, I didn't make the decision, and so you figure out what can you do to make it work. Our clerks are doing all that can be expected of them.”
Roberts says that before media clerks, school librarians—often called library media specialists—taught students how to navigate complex online databases, how to avoid plagiarism, and how to find good sources for research projects. She says these responsibilities have now been pushed onto the plates of classroom teachers.
“They are responsible for all of that now," she says. "They don't have that additional support person to co-teach with them.”
Roberts is happy to announce that the Wichita Public School District has kept a librarian at each of its elementary schools and all but three of its middle schools. She says librarians are absolutely essential in these settings.
“Elementary librarians are teaching all day, every day—back to back classes," Roberts says. "They will do check-in and check-out of books, and they'll also teach information literacy lessons. They also work to support classroom learning. And so, they have to be knowledgeable in all of the content standards and support what's happening in the classroom.”
While Wichita has been able to keep its elementary school librarians, that’s not the case elsewhere. As of next year, there will only be a single librarian serving Derby Public Schools' roughly 6800 students, and that will be in a management role.
“We'll have one library media specialist that oversees K-12," says Derby Superintendent Craig Wilford. "The other three media specialists have been reassigned to classroom positions and will be teaching within the elementary level.”
Wilford says much of what was taught by the district's librarians is covered in the curriculum and is integrated in the classroom.
He feels the move doesn't put any additional stress on classroom teachers.
"As far as the media clerks, I think the individuals that we hire and put into those (libraries) will be able to provide support," he says. "We'll provide training as necessary in certain areas. And we'll see how that plays out.”
Ten years ago, Derby Public Schools had 13 librarians to cover its 12 schools. Wilford says that since then, an emphasis on other programs has stretched an already thin budget.
“Our demographics changed completely," he says. "Our school district is about 40 to 50 percent free and reduced lunch—students that come from poverty need more support; there's great research out there to support that. Our English Language Learners population continues to grow, and we all know the importance of early childhood programs.”
Focusing resources on programs like ELL, which helps students to learn English as a second language, will be the new normal for Derby. Superintendent Wilford says the district has a strategic plan, and their emphasis has shifted away from librarian positions. That’s common both locally and throughout the state, which averages less than three librarians per school district.
“When I talk to superintendents around the state, which I do often, their budgets have been cut repeatedly over the last several years, to the point where it's people (being let go)," says Brad Neuenswander, interim commissioner for the Kansas Department of Education. "And I don't think that's a surprise to anyone.”
Neuenswander says that while total spending for education is up in Kansas, much of that added revenue is going to brick-and-mortar costs and the state’s pension plan, KPERS. But when it comes to student support positions, he says budgets are limited, and that’s affecting more than just librarians.
“Whether it's librarians, counselors, before-school programs, after-school programs, there are very valuable resources that are provided to help support students and teachers," Neuenswander says. "The more you cut those, the less services and attention that can be given to help provide good quality instruction and resources to students.”
There’s another effect of librarian positions disappearing across Kansas: The very idea of going into that field for a living. Forbes lists a Master’s degree in library and information science dead last for career growth. For Sheri Roberts at Wichita Public Schools, that’s hard to hear. Displayed in her office is a master’s of library science degree.
“Some of what we do seems invisible because people don't really know what happens in the library," Roberts says. "The hours spent choosing the just-right book for those kids, making connections with those kids that may set them up to be a lifelong learner, or finding that book that really sparks their zest for reading.
"I think that sometimes we're not the most visible person, and we don't tell our story.”
Roberts says it’s a frustrating time to be in education, but that everyone she works with comes in every day and does their best to provide top-quality schooling.
As for the future of school librarians in Kansas, "what happens will happen, and we'll just take it from there,” she says.
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Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur