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Librarians fear elementary school budget cutbacks

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Wednesday January 23, 2002

With the school district in financial trouble, elementary school librarians, already part-time employees who operate part-time libraries, are worried about further cuts. 

“My concern is that we need to increase hours, not decrease,” said Ilene Sheng, library media technician at Oxford School. “The elementary school libraries are already closed one-third of the time.” 

Last week, a state agency called the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which has been providing the Berkeley schools with financial advice since October, added new urgency to the concerns.  

FCMAT attached concrete figures to long-simmering fears about a budget deficit, projecting a $1.6 million shortfall this year, followed by deficits of $7.8 million and $16.7 million the next two years if the district does not make cuts. 

The district has a history of chipping away at the library budget in times of need. In the mid-1970s, Berkeley moved from full-time to half-time librarians. In 1981, the district replaced credentialed librarians at the elementary school level with library media technicians, who do not hold credentials. 

In 1994, the district made the elementary school technicians part-time employees. Those technicians now work 20 to 25 hours per week, depending on enrollment at the school. 

The district has kept full-time, credentialed librarians in place at the middle school and high school levels.  

Members of the Board of Education say it is too early to determine where they will trim the budget. But, board member Ted Schultz suggested that cuts to portions of the district’s $600,000 library budget are a possibility. 

“We’ll just have to see how things unfold in terms of whether we can maintain what we have,” said Schultz, “because that is an area where we tend to cut.” 

District funds go to salaries and benefits exclusively. State grants and money from the Berkeley Schools Excellence project, or BSEP, a special local tax, fund books, technology and technical assistance.  

John Selawsky, another board member, acknowledged that protection of teachers and classroom resources will be a top priority when it comes to cuts. But, he said he will work to give libraries top billing as well. 

“Certainly you want to make your cuts as far from the classroom as possible,” he said. “But for me, the library is at the heart of the school...and at some point, you can’t cut anymore.” 

Advocates say the school libraries serve a vital function. Susie Goodin, a library volunteer and consulting librarian for the district, points to studies in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Alaska demonstrating a link between well-stocked, well-staffed libraries, and higher test scores. 

School librarians add that they provide a whole range of vital, day-to-day services, beginning with the management, maintenance and building of the school’s book collection. 

Nancy Charlson, library media technician at Cragmont School, noted that many districts just use volunteers to maintain library collections.  

A librarian, she suggested, can be a lot more effective. “Having someone on site to maintain these expensive collections is very important,” she said. “Otherwise, (the books) would just walk off.”  

Sheng adds that school librarians are able to support classroom curricula, noting that she recently pulled out a series of biographies on famous African-Americans for a fifth-grade teacher to complement classwork. 

But, Sheng said, as a part-timer, she does not have nearly enough time to collaborate with teachers, or teach students basic research skills. 

“I would love to teach library skills, but I don’t have the time,” said Sheng, who meets with each class, once a week, for half an hour. 

Ellie Goldstein-Erickson, librarian at Berkeley High School, said that, as a full-timer, she is able to collaborate with teachers and instill research skills. 

The librarian cited work earlier this year with ninth grade Identity and Ethnic Studies classes, in which students looked up five key terms used in the class, and studied the relative values of dictionary and encyclopedia definitions at the same time. 

But staffing is not the only issue for the district’s libraries. Earlier this month, the school board submitted a plan to the state, drafted by district staff and consultants, that set a number of goals, including technological and furniture upgrades. 

But, with a deficit looming, it appears that these goals will have to wait.