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Schools tackle library gaps

MY VIEW • More students, stabilized programs needed
by: L.E. BASKOW, A budget shortfall meant that the only new books at the Madison High School library this year were donated ones. Many readers say Portland Public Schools should fund all of the district’s librarian positions.

Nothing better illustrates the hard choices that Portland schools face than the trade-offs some principals have had to make between classroom and library positions.

Thanks to the local-option levy voters passed in 2006, Portland Public Schools finally has stable funding. But this funding is still not sufficient to support everything that our schools and students need.

Every year, Portland Public Schools lets principals know how many staff members they get for the next year, based on the number of students in their schools.

The schools with decreasing numbers of kids face the toughest decisions ('Schools shelve more libraries,' May 29, 2008). In those schools, principals are forced to work with their staffs and families to cut positions, and the unfortunate trend has been to reduce library staffing.

Portland Public Schools needs to help schools increase their enrollment and stabilize programs.

Meanwhile, principals are doing everything they can to keep libraries accessible to students. Our schools keep libraries open with two kinds of employees. Professional, certified librarians are trained teachers, skilled in helping students get excited about reading, collaborating with classroom teachers on lessons and teaching students research skills, including Internet queries.

They also have many administrative duties involved in managing the library.

Library assistants are clerical staff. They also maintain the library collection, help students pick books and support teachers, but with less training and no teaching credentials, there are lower expectations for them to be responsible for student learning. They also cost half as much as teacher-librarians.

In some schools that have faced library cuts, the use of library assistants and parent-volunteers has helped keep libraries open.

The ideal would be to have both a librarian and a library assistant - without the trade-offs in expertise, access and expense - but few of our schools can afford that option.

Federal rules also tie principals' hands. Schools that receive Title 1 funding are banned by federal law from using that money to buy back librarians or other staff members who once were paid through general budget dollars. This means that each budget season more schools serving low-income children are forced to trim library services.

The result has been uneven and inequitable access to libraries for our students as well as uneven quality and size of library collections. Some schools are able to raise funds to buy back staffing or purchase books, but others do not have that ability.

Portland Public Schools is conducting an assessment of all our libraries so we can address the gaps that currently exist. Access to a quality school library should not be dependent on where a child lives.

Next year's budget takes baby steps toward adding back some of the staff lost over the last 12 years of cutbacks, guaranteeing at least a half-time counselor at all schools serving middle- and high-school-age students and giving elementary, K-8 and middle schools a small increase in staff to support PE, music, art, drama and dance classes.

The Portland school board is calling for libraries to be the next budget priority. If we can accomplish this, perhaps next spring's budget will save principals from their tough decisions and keep our school libraries as the hubs of learning and research that our schools, and students, deserve.

Ruth Adkins is the director of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education.