Branden Mitchell reads an interactive story to students during library time at Wheatley Education Campus in northeast D.C. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
Branden Mitchell reads an interactive story to students during library time at Wheatley Education Campus in northeast D.C. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Since the D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) central office released its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, public school librarians have relayed concerns that their job will be on the chopping block, especially since recent changes allow principals to use their discretion in budgetary matters concerning on-campus libraries.

For some DCPS librarians, the current budget battle has brought to light their longstanding gripes with an environment in which they’re overworked and left without the proper resources to fully enrich their increasingly diverse student body.

One veteran bibliosoph who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity told The Informer that possible budget cuts that librarians face would further debilitate instruction at public schools, especially those east of the Anacostia River.

“For years, school librarians have had to work with contract violations and poor funding for books, supplies and technology. It is shocking that D.C. Public Schools makes it a principal’s discretion to eliminate the position of school librarian,” the paraprofessional said as she explained the hurdles she and her colleagues have struggled to overcome for years.

“Currently, some D.C. public school libraries are not used properly. There are high school libraries with part-time librarians when they should have a full-time librarian and a full-time assistant,” the librarian added.

“There are elementary libraries with part-time librarians who are misused as teachers and given extensive cafeteria or recess duty. Many elementary librarians, especially in Southeast, have duties outside of the library multiple times a week that subsequently prevent motivated students from going to the library more than once a week to get more books to read,” she said.

School libraries have been credited with increasing access to print and digital materials that support reading. Educators also tout them as incubators of literacy, not only for students, but families.

Currently, 70 percent of the District’s 118 public schools have full-time librarians, while librarians at schools serving a student population of fewer than 300 students work part-time. In the charter school sector, half of the schools have libraries curated by either a librarian or reading specialist.

As of Monday, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) has counted at least 25 D.C. public schools – the majority of which are located east of the Anacostia River where library staff anticipate budget cuts to their position, most likely because of fluctuating student enrollment coupled with increasing personnel costs.

In the weeks following the release of DCPS’ FY 2021 budget proposal, the DCPS central office has received petitions demanding the funding of their position.

A meeting between DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, WTU President Elizabeth Davis, John Chraska of EveryLibrary Institute and several DCPS librarians had been scheduled for March 27, though it hasn’t been determined how the District’s ongoing public health state of emergency would affect this event.

Davis told The Informer that Chraska would discuss how DCPS could access federal funds that can be appropriated to Title 1 schools, those with a large concentration of low-income students, with the staff needed to maintain its libraries.

The chancellor’s initial budget designates $12 million to staff public schools with librarians with another $1 million allocated toward upgrades. This year, budget proposals reached Local School Advisory Teams earlier than in previous years to give principals more flexibility in petitioning for additional funds.

District public schools receive an initial budget allocation based on a comprehensive staffing model which factors in enrollment projections for the upcoming academic year and demands for special needs accommodations. Nearly two dozen public schools, more than half of which are located east of the Anacostia River, will have access to the chancellor’s initial budget assistance coffer of $3.4 million.

However, such expenditures come after the 2020 budget season during which 15 schools in Ward 8 stand to lose $10 million total in per-pupil funding. Hart Middle School, which doesn’t have a projected decline in enrollment, counts in that group.

At some schools, funding cuts threatened the availability of paraprofessional positions including social workers and librarians – a situation that some like Sherri Jones says don’t allow public school libraries to reach their full potential.

In her third year as a librarian, Jones splits her time between Simon Elementary School in Southeast and Houston Elementary School in Northeast. During her tenure, she says she’s seen the need for enrichment like that which she has attempted to implement at each school under time constraints.

“If a principal knowing their population has to choose between a librarian and social workers, in-school suspension support and behavioral tech support, that’s an easy choice in the interim but in the long run it’s not good,” said Jones, a former classroom teacher of 18 years.

“Librarians make huge impacts in schools with robust library programs. I’m part-time because the district funds schools based on enrollment. It’s difficult to institute reading incentive programs and collaborate with teachers when I’m at both schools two-and-a-half days a week,” she said.

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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