Librarians Disappearing From Chicago Schools


Librarians Disappearing From Chicago Schools

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Librarians are disappearing from Chicago Public Schools.

The school district released a $6.3 billion spending plan this week that cut 1,200 staff positions. About 80 were librarians.

“How does that make me feel? Like an endangered species,” said Nora Wiltse, a school librarian at Coonley Elementary. She still has a job, and for the last few years she’s documented the rapid decline of school librarians in Chicago.

In 2012, Chicago Public Schools had 454 librarian positions in the budget. That dropped to 313 in 2013 and 252 in 2014. Last year there were 217 library positions in the budget.

This year, there are just 160 librarians budgeted.

“Less than 300 librarians was crazy,” Wiltse said. “We were pretty confident that that was a low point that really needed attention and needed correcting. And now, here we are.”

Sitting at a coffee shop on Chicago’s North Side, Wiltse explained how she and a small committee of librarians have documented dwindling numbers over time.

In the past, district officials blamed the state for how they fund schools as the reason the city couldn’t have a librarian at every school. On Friday, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner pointed to the lack of a contract with the teachers union.

“While CPS has balanced its budget this year, the reality is that the District doesn’t have additional funding to increase hiring,” she wrote in an e-mail to WBEZ. “Instead, we’ve offered teachers a net raise of more than 6 percent over the life of the contract, paid for by increasing taxes on Chicago taxpayers by $250 million and cutting hundreds of administrative jobs. We remain committed to working with principals to organize their schools, reaching a fair agreement for our teachers that the district and taxpayers can afford.”

The school district used to have a whole department dedicated to librarians. Nearly every school was allocated at least one librarian position. Now, principals are given about $5,000 for every student they enroll and they decide how many teachers to hire and what extra programs to offer.

“When you continue to have cuts and your entire budget goes toward staff, there’s nowhere else to cut from,” Wiltse said. But, she added, many schools don’t want to talk about the problem.

“If you broadcast that you don’t have a librarian, then that can hurt the number of students that might attend your school and then that further continues, you know, then you have less funding and it’s a cycle,” she noted.

Chicago is not alone. Other cities, like New York, D.C. and Philadelphia, have cut the number of school librarians in their public schools.

For Chicago, the budget numbers don’t tell the whole story. Wiltse said in some cases, a position is listed, but not filled. Other times, the person serving as the librarian isn’t certified or the librarian has taken on other jobs at the school.

In the past, district officials have also touted their “expanded virtual libraries” available to all schools. Wiltsie said today’s students may be digitally savvy, but that doesn’t mean they know how to do research and think critically about all the information at their fingertips.

“I get frustrated that we still have to defend our existence,” she said. “If we really looked at it like—what we would want for our children— a library is a given that you probably wouldn’t have to think about or rationalize.”

Becky Vevea is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @wbezeducation.