By Steve Lopez, LA Times columnist | http://lat.ms/qG9FhE
September 21, 2011
Lay off 227 elementary school library aides?
Whack the hours of another 190 aides in half and eliminate their healthcare benefits?Lock up libraries in a school district desperate to lift literacy rates?
Sounds like either a bad joke or a satirical take on the decline of civilization.
But no: It's the working plan for how to save money in Los Angeles Unified, as I laid out last week.
The fight isn't quite over, though. Some folks, who consider the library-demolition idea one of the dumbest things they've ever heard, are firing off letters of protest and working to derail the plan before cutbacks go into effect next week.
"It's just deeply, deeply wrong," said Shelli-Anne Couch, who is scrambling to collect private donations and save her children's library at Atwater Elementary School. "It's just unfathomable, and where do you turn your firepower? Do I go hat in hand trying to raise money, or find some politicians whose heads I can bang together?"
For now, she's chosen the former. Couch, president of her school's parent group, has launched an online campaign to raise $15,000, hoping to save the job of a library aide who works three hours a day. But as of Tuesday, Couch and Friends of Atwater Elementary School had only come up with $2,600.
Shelli-Anne Couch and others helped raise $20,000 in grants and donations last year to build the reading garden outside the library at Atwater Elementary. Now, the library may be closed. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / September 20, 2011>>
And it gets even more maddening:
Last year, parents at the school raised $20,000 in grants and private donations to build a reading garden outside the library, an inviting little oasis with benches, redwood planters, an arbor, native plants and vegetables. Nice place to read a book, except that now the library may be closed.
Yes, it's an upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland world. And parents at another school — West Hollywood Elementary — can't make sense of it.
They've seen their library aide of eight years go from a six-hour daily schedule to a three-hour daily schedule to a layoff notice. Now it looks as if Mia Buis, who is much beloved by parents and students, judging by tributes to her, will be out of work after Friday, even though parents raised money specifically to pay her salary of about $12,000.
"Something is fishy when they say you have to raise money to fund the position, you give them the check, and then they eliminate the position," said an exasperated Stacy Klines, president of Friends of West Hollywood Elementary.
The principal, Julia Charles, is just as frustrated as the parents. Because of union and district policies, she said, parents are sometimes allowed to fund a position, but not to designate a specific person for the job. That means that, despite the parents' efforts, Buis won't be allowed to fill the job because she has less seniority than some other aides. And Charles will have to petition the district to see if she can even get a replacement.
Library aides, the de facto librarians in many schools, aren't the only ones whose jobs are on the line in the current round of LAUSD budget cuts, which couldn't have been timed in a way more disruptive to the start of the school year or demoralizing to staff, parents and students.
Several hundred office aide positions are being eliminated, and hundreds more employees will see their hours slashed. The district has tried to get employees to agree to four furlough days in contract negotiations, which might have saved some jobs, but the next negotiating session isn't scheduled until next week, after cuts are implemented.
Employees and their union reps argue that they've already made big concessions, with many library aides losing half their hours and pay, along with benefits.
In response to my column last week, LAUSD Supt. John Deasy said on KPCC's "Madeleine Brand Show" that primary literacy skills are learned in the classroom, not in the library, and that in this age of deep statewide budget cuts, it's classroom teachers who have to be protected above all else.
Agreed. But has he really looked at all the possible other places to trim?
I know the staff at district headquarters has been slashed the past few years, but Deasy needs to explain why more cutting isn't possible at a time when school libraries — SCHOOL LIBRARIES! — are on the chopping block.
Deasy, who has surrounded himself with handsomely compensated guys in suits while sending layoff notices to $15,000-a-year library aides, also spoke on KPCC about his effort to raise $200 million from private sources. If he can make it rain that hard, is there a better way to spend the cash than to prioritize libraries in a district where thousands of students have little access to books?
At most schools, it's not possible for parents to raise money for library aides or anything else. And at the few schools that can raise money, the inflexibility of the district and the unions makes things difficult if not impossible. There is no good reason that a library aide who knows the staff and the students should be transferred, especially after parents have forked over money to keep the aide in the school family.
Is the plan to drive as many families out of the district as possible?
"It's a series of agonizing Sophie's choices," LAUSD school board member Steve Zimmer emailed me during a district meeting Tuesday, acknowledging the district is going to "shutter the libraries" and "waste all the funding for books" in the process.
"How would you decide between a library aide and lowering class size? And have you heard about all the cuts in school transportation? About magnet kids waiting for buses at 6:15 a.m.? And special education students having to ride for over an hour?"
"This is what public education looks like in the great recession.
"This is the new LAUSD normal."
Maybe so, but when do district officials stop waving a white flag, stand up for the kids and begin to fight?