October 16th, 2013, 6:00am :: Lorne St. Elementary School parents and students wrote over one thousand letters addressed to Superintendent John Deasy, requesting their library be reopened.
Despite increasing school budgets, one victim of years of budget cuts remains: shuttered school libraries.
When budgets tightened post recession, the Los Angeles Unified School District told principals they'd have to find money in their budgets for librarians or library aides - positions that used to be budged directly by the district.
Lorne St. Elementary in Northridge was among dozens that got creative using volunteers or a regular classroom aide in the library. That appears to violate the district's contract with the union, so Lorne Street had to close the library. Hallie Kovacs, a fourth grader at the school, isn't happy about it.
“All of last year - except when we had tether ball - I would spend every recess and lunch at the library," she said. “I’ve learned almost everything I know from books.”
April Dobson, whose daughter attends the school, learned the library was closed when she walked by and saw a lock on the door. Since then, she’s made it her mission to get it reopened.
She rallied other parents. Together, they’ve made countless phone calls and sent over one thousand letters to school district officials and school board members.
“Unfortunately, all we got was a sympathetic, but unhelpful email from a low level office of communications employee," Dobson said. "It’s been really frustrating."
It's unclear how many L.A. Unified schools share Lorne Street's predicament.
A district spokesperson did not respond to KPCC’s requests for the number of school libraries closed. Lorne Street's principal declined to be interviewed.
L.A. Unified board member Monica Ratliff said she's assigned a staffer to figure out how many school libraries have closed in her San Fernando Valley district. So far, the tally is five middle schools. Calls are only now going out to elementary schools.
Ratliff said she learned of library closures during a recent visit to Roy Romer Middle School in North Hollywood.
"It was built five years ago," she said, "so they have a brand new library – beautiful, thousands of books – and no one can use the library.”
Union officials have recently pushed back on schools that are breaking the rules to keep the libraries open. In a letter to the district, the California School Employees Association named 47 schools it claims are using parent volunteers or other school aides to staff libraries - at a lower cost than library aides.
"Instead of doing that," said union representative Fanny Parish, "organize yourself and just say – No! That’s Wrong!"
She wants schools and parents to join forces to pressure the district to staff the libraries properly.
It's a good time to ask. Voters approved a bond measure to increase school funding and Gov. Jerry Brown has earmarked a large portion of that increase to districts with large portions of needy kids - those from low-income families, in foster care or who are just learning English. L.A. Unified will get an additional $188 million under the plan.
Ratliff said she wants to bring union and district officials together soon to work out a solution.
Lorne Street classroom instructional aide Charlotte Cox said the union is hurting kids unnecessarily. She ran Lorne Street's library for two years, but now she's back in the classroom.
"I think it stinks," Cox said. "I don’t think the kids really care what title you have. They care that they are able to check out books and read books."
Library Aides (or elementary school librarians) are trained and experienced classified professionals specified in the California Ed Code as being in charge of and responsible for the operation of school libraries. [Ed Code sections 18100 & 44868-44869]
Classroom Aides work in the classroom under the supervision of teachers doing a completely different job. Most classroom aides are federally funded under Title One to SUPPLIMENT the education of disadvantaged kids either by working directly with them or allowing the classroom teacher to do so. To assign a classroom aide to the library is misuse of Title One Funds (because they are working out of category AND in that it SUPPLANTS a regular employee*) Such placement additionally violates the Ed Code and the California Labor Laws. And various union contracts.
[The SUPPLIMENT NOT SUPPLANT test is the basic identifier of proper vs. improper use of Title One funds. If a job has been done in the past through regular funding it cannot be federally funded under Title One going forward.]
Parent volunteerism is encouraged – I have spent many an hour assisting in the school library – but always under the supervision of a librarian. By law and in the great reality of life, a parent volunteer is not qualified to run a library any more than they are qualified to teach a class or be the principal sign a contract. Additionally federal and state Labor Laws expressly forbid replacing paid employees with unpaid volunteers.