“There’s no better use of limited funds than paying attorneys to harass educators who’ve devoted their lives to helping our children,” Bennett Tramer of Santa Monica, California, said in a letter published May 17 in the Los Angeles Times. A tongue-in-cheek response to the May 13 Hector Tobar column, “The Disgraceful Interrogation of L.A. School Librarians,” the letter concluded: “I also applaud the valuable presence of armed police officers at the hearings; you never know when a librarian will pull out a book and start reading.”
Tramer was reacting to Tobar’s heart-wrenching description of a week’s worth of hearings, in which attorneys representing the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) asked Kafkaesque questions such as “Do you take attendance?” of dozens of teacher-librarians appealing their layoffs in order to prove to an administrative judge that the teacher-librarians were not qualified to become classroom teachers. At least, that’s what observers such as Tobar and Nora Murphy, a teacher-librarian for L.A. Academy Middle School and blogger, have written about the hearings.
What does taking attendance have to do with being a highly trained educator who is duly credentialed and who teaches how to learn? Here’s the connection: A recency rule established this school year by LAUSD officials (and upheld by an administrative judge) states that a teacher-librarian who has not taught in a classroom for five years is no longer, by definition, a qualified teacher, no matter how many years of service and training she or he has. And if a teacher-librarian hasn’t taken attendance in five or more years, she or he must not have been in charge of a classroom. The administrative judge presiding over the hearings upheld the recency rule, clearing the way for the trials. It is unclear when the judge will rule on the individuals’ qualifications.
In a May 18 op-ed in the Times, Murphy said:
I have listened as other teacher-librarians have endured demeaning questions from school district attorneys, and I wonder how it has come to this. . . . The basic question being asked is whether highly trained and experienced teacher-librarians are fit for the classroom. LAUSD’s lawyers seem determined to prove they are not. One librarian, who would like to go back to an elementary classroom if her library is closed, was asked to recite the physical education standards for second-graders, as if failing to do so would mean she was unfit. Another teacher, who wants to return to teaching English, noted that she spent all day in the library effectively teaching English. But her inquisitor quickly started asking questions about the Dewey Decimal System, suggesting that since it involved more math than English, the teacher was no longer practiced in the art of teaching English.
Among those laid off is Leslie Sipos, teacher-librarian for the middle- and high school library at the brand-new LAUSD’s Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus, which was featured in American Libraries’ 2011 facilities showcase. “She hadn’t even gotten all the books out of boxes,” Monroe High School Teacher-Librarian Annette Scherr told AL.
“The elimination of school librarians means the District is losing invaluable teachers whose educational specialty is empowering students with life-long, independent learning skills,” wrote American Library Association President Roberta A. Stevens and Nancy Everhart, president of ALA’s American Association of School Librarians, in an open letter May 18 to the LAUSD board and administration. Urging the district to reconsider its decision, Stevens and Everhart asserted: “The elimination of these positions will have a devastating effect on the educational prospects and success of the District’s students. A good school library is not an option—it is essential to a good education.”
As the grilling of teacher-librarians and other LAUSD educators proceeded, there was a presumption that state aid to education was going to be slashed yet again in FY2012, which would be partly responsible for LAUSD having a nearly $408-million deficit to erase. However, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced May 16 that, because state revenues had mushroomed $6.6 billion more than anticipated this fiscal year, he was recommending the restoration of $3 billion to education spending.
If LAUSD receives the $300 million it would be due, it’s unclear whether it could help alleviate the situation in which teacher-librarians find themselves. What could help is the intense networking and outreach that members of the California School Librarians Association are doing to make the Los Angeles school libraries crisis as visible as possible. Teacher-librarians such as Scherr lobbied in the state Capitol with the California Teachers Association in mid-May for additional education funding, and even buttonholed California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who was among those backing the state’s adoption last year of model school-library standards. Authors Neil Gaiman, Bruce Coville, and Jane Yolen have been spreading the word through Facebook; Gaiman has also created a #savethelibrarians hashtag.
From Kafka to kiosk?
Scherr and other LAUSD teacher-librarians remain determined, but according to the April 20 quarterly report on bond-funded projects issued by district Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott, the district has already reorganized the Instructional Media Services, which supported the school-library program, into a new department: the Integrated Library and Textbook Support Services. “The Director position of Instructional Media Services is being eliminated,” Elliott writes, noting, “ILTSS supports the instructional goals of the Superintendent and LAUSD by ensuring new school libraries will be made available to students. . . . It is understood that all libraries need a certified librarian, but budget constraints force us to investigate different options for the schools to implement.”
According to Scherr, Elliott testified before the administrative judge that there was no function a teacher-librarian could perform that couldn’t be performed by anybody else. That philosophy is reflected in the report, which goes into detail about the implementation of Follett Software’s Destiny integrated-library system for library and textbook inventory management. Principals are offered three options: Find external funding for a teacher-librarian to manage the software system; delegate a school staffer to learn and maintain the software; establish an unstaffed “kiosk” self-check system so students and faculty can still access the library’s collection.