San Diego’s school libraries will be open at least one day a week next school year. That’s actually the good news.

Some schools’ libraries have been closed for years. Even worse: Many of the libraries sitting empty are gleaming new facilities filled with comfy sofas, rows of computers and shelved full of books.

Christie Ritter on Schools

A guaranteed day each week is at least a step in the right direction.

A few months ago, I asked my fifth-grader if he’d been to his school library lately. He said the last time he remembered going was in third grade. I spoke to his principal, Kimberly Lopez at Hawthorne Elementary School in Clairemont, and she said the school has not employed a library technician or assistant, much less a higher-paid librarian, for two years. If children want to check out books from the school library, the only staff member authorized to do it is a school clerk. But she’s got other work to do, so her time in the library is limited.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Hawthorne is not the only school in this predicament. Across the district, 44 school libraries are unstaffed, and in some cases, have been dark for years. Many more are open only a few hours a week.

How did things get to this point?

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, the San Diego Unified School District had just finished building or remodeling 102 school libraries: 76 at elementary schools, 13 at middle schools, two for charter schools and 10 at high schools.

The building boom was funded by 1998’s Proposition MM, a $1.51 billion bond that funded construction across the San Diego Unified School District. The libraries were built between 2001 and 2006, said Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s executive director of facilities, planning and construction.

These sleek new libraries cost $79.6 million, according to materials obtained by VOSD through a public records request. But soon after some of the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, many libraries went dark. Contractual restrictions – on top of funding cuts and layoffs – contributed to the closings.

Why Parents Can’t Fill the Gaps

In 2008, principals were forced to choose between librarians and health assistants, counselors and attendance clerks – all considered crucial positions up till then.

“That was the beginning of school-based budgeting,” said Chris Juarez, principal of Curie Elementary in University City. “We were given a blank slate and told ‘You build it,’ so we had to find our most basic priorities.”

Juarez even ran a marathon in April 2008 and collected pledges to raise money to keep Curie’s library staffed that fall.

But lots of other schools decided cutting library staff was the least-terrible option.

Faced with the prospect of their libraries closing, parents across San Diego volunteered to staff the libraries.

That was impossible, though, thanks to language in the school district’s contract with the California School Employees Association, which represents library technicians and assistants. The rule says: “The district may accept the donation of work providing that it does not result in the layoff, reduction or replacement of bargaining unit employees or positions.”

Schools have limited options when funding for a specific job is cut or if a library worker quits. The contract with library assistants prevents other school employees or volunteers from doing their job.

The same rule also prevented PTAs from going outside of the district’s human resources department to staff their school library. Library workers have to come from a list of prequalified candidates from the district, and the hiring process can take months.

‘It’s Inequitable’

“To me clearly, the taxpayers have spoken, saying they wanted libraries,” said Elaine Sabetti, a library tech at Lewis Middle School. “Parents are saying that they want them, but the district isn’t finding it important. In no way is one day a week enough, to me it’s inequitable, because you have other schools that are open full time.”

Indeed, the impact across the district has been uneven. School leaders had some leeway in deciding what staff positions to fund and which to cut. Some schools never had to close their libraries at all; others’ libraries have hardly been open.

Some schools had another option. Schools like Silver Gate, Sunset View and La Jolla Elementary kept their libraries staffed at least in part by using school foundation money to pay a district library worker. School foundations, or parent-fundraising groups, funnel millions of dollars into San Diego Unified schools each year, and the money can be used to bolster certain programs or to keep staff members around.

Donna Tripi, principal of La Jolla Elementary, said the decision to fund library staff is driven by the community. “When you have a foundation, it can support some of the needs you have, it’s helpful. When you have Title 1 money, that’s other discretionary money you can use for student achievement. It’s the priorities of the site and what they feel like their goals are. We’ve always felt a library was very important.”

Title I funds, which go to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, can also be used toward library staff.

Suzy Reid, mother of a first grader and a third grader at Ocean Beach Elementary – where the library is open one day a week – said fighting for library access has been a struggle. She called Ocean Beach Elementary an “in-betweener” school, because it doesn’t have a foundation to support extras like a library worker, but it also isn’t one of the poorest schools in the district, so it doesn’t get much Title 1 federal funding either.

“The librarian is inundated and she has no time to spend with these children.  … We have meetings in the library, that’s the most use it gets,” Reid said. “We sit there surrounded by all those great books and technology, but nobody gets to use it.”

Common Core

Many parents and educators think the need for functioning school libraries is greater than ever, thanks to the new Common Core standards being rolled out at schools across the country.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Barbara Flannery, a San Diego High School parent, said she’s concerned that the move to the Common Core curriculum will only make the need for access to research materials greater, and exacerbate the gap between students who have Internet access at home and those who don’t.

Barbara Baron, program manager of instructional resources and materials department for San Diego Unified, said the role of teacher librarian, who can assist students with research, will be even more important with the Common Core standards.

“Most of our students and many of our teachers know Google,” Baron said. “I love Google, but to get that academic, really deep and rigorous information, it’s not Google.”

Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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