By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
Library aide Fran Johnson reads to students in the library at Pomelo Drive Elementary School in Canoga Park. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer)
5 May 2010 --WEST HILLS — During recess Wednesday at Pomelo Drive Elementary as one student searched the online catalogue of the school's library, for books about pizza, another paced the fiction aisles digging for a "Star Wars" selection.
Two second-graders curled up on one of the room's big red couches while another group of students enjoyed the sunny day to read under some trees right outside the library.
"At recess and lunch this place can get crowded" said Fran Johnson, the library aide at Pomelo Drive.
When urged to explain her library obsession fourth-grader Reika Rashidi's answered promptly "I love my library...it's a quiet place to think."
Next year though Reika might have to find a different place to gather her thoughts since steep budget cuts at Los Angeles Unified are expected to reduce funding for the district's libraries.
LAUSD's proposed budget for 2010-11 only guarantees high schools a full-time librarian while dozens of middle and elementary schools could be forced to scale back services.
Cutting access to books at a district that already suffers from dismal student achievement and even lower adult literacy rates – as city and county offices are also reducing services – is a big concern for educators.
"Better libraries are related to better reading achievement. This has been confirmed at the state level, national level and international level, and holds even when researchers control for the effects of poverty," said Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus of education and linguistics at the University of Southern California.
"The reason for this is obvious: Children become better readers by reading more and the library is a major source of books for children."
District officials though said there are few options left.
Facing a $640 million deficit for the 2010-11 school year LAUSD officials have proposed drastic cuts including shortening the school year and eliminating summer school.
While a deal reached with the teacher's unions allowed district officials to guarantee one librarian for every high school, elementary and middle schools will have to choose between spending their campus budgets on library staff or other campus needs – like nurses, custodians or administrators.
During tough financial times though many schools barely have money for copier ink and faced with a choice some will have to cut library staff or even shutter their libraries.
The situation is painful, said Nancy Reich, an LAUSD library specialist.
"When you talk about closing a library it causes heart stoppage but this is the dilemma we are facing," Reich said.
Funding for libraries has always been scarce for LAUSD largely because California has not prioritized its libraries said Barbara Jeffus, a library services consultant for the California Department of Education.
This has lead the state to lag the nation in the quality of its school libraries.
In California there are 18 library books per student, well below the national average of 26.
Also the state's ratio of librarians to students is 5,124:1 while the national average is 916:1.
And while California's education require all schools to have a working library they don't mandate how they have to be operated.
"In California we just don't have a strong history of good school libraries," Jeffus said.
Lawmakers tried to change that in 1998 by creating the California Public School Library Act.
In its first year the act provided $158 million for school libraries. That money helped transform libraries from storage rooms and empty classrooms to colorful spaces designed to promote and encourage reading.
While the money was for materials – not staff – the increase in resources led many school districts, like LAUSD, to better staff their libraries.
By 2003 though funding for libraries was cut by 92 percent. Then by 2006 restrictions on the funding were removed so that cash-strapped districts could use it to cover other costs.
"I am hearing districts talk about closing their libraries ... or laying off all their staff," Jeffus said.
At Pomelo, Gardner said the library is considered a precious resource.
Parents and teachers, aided by the help of grants and non-profits, completely renovated the school's library in 2000 with some $150,000.
They now maintain it with dozens of volunteer hours and several fundraisers.
Upset by the looming cuts parents and students have launched a petition against reducing school library services.
At Pomelo the school library is expected to cut its operating hours in half next year to three hours. Principal Masha Gardner said even a funding a part-time library is a sacrifice at her school.
" But how can I tell children that literacy is important and then close down their library" Gardner said.
"The business of a school is literacy and literacy is bread inside school libraries," said Melinda Buterbaugh, a librarian at Vista Middle School in Panorama City.
Buterbaugh received a lay-off notice in March and even though she has been guaranteed a job as a teacher at her school, she said she feels "demoralized" to have to abandon her library post.
"I am flabbergasted that anyone could say `close the libraries"' Buterbaugh said.
"I don't think people thought this issue through."