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More than one out of every four elementary schools in San Diego is slated to have no one to staff its library next year. Nobody is sure how school libraries will operate with nobody to staff them, not even the manager who oversees all the libraries in San Diego Unified.

“It’s all a mystery to me,” said Barbara Baron, instructional resources and materials manager. “We’ve got the union issues on one side. We want to provide library services on the other.”

Libraries are supposed to spark a love of reading, teach kids to ferret out information and furnish kids with a wealth of books beyond what each teacher can pack into a classroom. But trying to keep the libraries running while shedding jobs is a labor minefield for schools. Replacing library workers with volunteers is against state law. Giving their work to other employees could get principals in hot water with the unions.

And just throwing the doors open without someone to manage the library could ramp up the risk of books going missing, as they travel to other schools or go home with kids and never come back.

Librarians and library assistants were some of the biggest losers after schools were freed to choose for themselves what to cut and what to spare for the coming school year. Few schools chose to save their library staff; most decided they had to cut back to save other employees or programs.

Kimbrough Elementary in Grant Hill is slated to have a librarian almost all the time and a library assistant a little less than half time. Just a mile away in Logan Heights, Rodriguez Elementary will have no one. Principal Claudia Jordan gave up its library worker to save hours for the school nurse and counselor.

“It’s a hard decision to kind of close it down,” Jordan said of the airy room rounded with a rainbow of books. Leathery ottomans are proudly stitched “Rodriguez Elementary Library.” A silvery shovel gleams on the wall, left over from the school groundbreaking less than five years ago.

Few elementary schools have actual librarians, who are trained as teachers and can lead lessons. But all of them now have library technicians or assistants to run them, less expensive employees who don’t teach, but can track which books have been returned, order new ones and keep the library running.

San Diego Unified has suggested that school clerks could help check books in and out. But labor unions that stand for library workers argue that their work can’t be piled onto other employees under labor contracts. If the libraries aren’t staffed with the workers who routinely keep them humming, labor relations representative David Fernandez said, they expect them to be shut down.

And even if someone can still check books in and out, that leaves a lot of work left undone, from tracking down books that are overdue to getting them back on shelves. Schools could risk losing their books if nobody keeps an eye on them. Baron says busy clerks just can’t handle the demands.

“People think you check books in and out and that’s that,” said library assistant Ruth Abe, who splits her time between Rodriguez and another school. “Books don’t have feet to walk back to their places!”

Flush with money from its last school construction bond, San Diego Unified built and renovated 367 school libraries over the last decade, when that silver shovel was proudly put up at Rodriguez. Now some of those new libraries may barely be used.

Librarians see the cuts as a waste.

“I don’t blame the principals. They were doing absolute triage to figure out what to cut,” said Kelly Casaday-Thompson, a library technician at the Language Academy. “I do have problems with San Diego Unified building libraries and then not staffing them adequately to protect the books inside.”

While classrooms are usually stocked with books, libraries are supposed to provide a cornucopia of choices beyond what each teacher could assemble for their classes. In Point Loma, Dana Middle has three vast shelves and baskets galore of books on ancient Egypt. Preteens bounded into the bright room circled by computers. One boy asked the librarian how to find “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“We’re not supposed to read this book until high school!” he bragged to a friend.

Besides offering up books, libraries also show children how to research. And as technology expands in San Diego classrooms, Baron said, libraries teach kids to perfect Google searches and find accurate information online.

For kids who have few books at home, the library could be an even bigger loss. Metal bars crisscross the windows of apartments near Rodriguez, where almost all children come from poor families. Abe often has to coax children to return books from home, overcoming little pleas of, “But I really, really like it.”

School libraries are under the knife at the same time the mayor has proposed slashing city libraries, cutting their hours almost in half. That would leave the branch libraries open only 18.5 hours a week, roughly two or three days at a time.

School board member Scott Barnett, who sat on a school construction watchdog committee, said both of the city and school district could have lessened their library losses if they had worked together more than a decade ago to make joint-use libraries for students and the public.

“Here was a golden opportunity for the school district,” Barnett said. “Now fast forward 13 years later.”

The problem isn’t unique to San Diego. Four years ago, California had one school librarian for every 5,124 kids, ranking 51st in the nation. The California Department of Education says the numbers, which haven’t been tallied since then, are likely even worse now as budgets are cut.

“Times are hard I guess,” Abe said before first graders filed into the Rodriguez library, eager for a SpongeBob SquarePants story about Easter. “A lot of libraries are falling back in the hole.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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