Literary lamentations: State budget cuts lead to loss of librarians in Cedar Rapids

Photos by Naomi Hofferber

The board room at the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD)’s Educational Leadership and Support Center overflowed into the lobby at the Apr. 25 Board of Education meeting. Students, parents and educators from around the state came to voice their concerns over the elimination of the teacher-librarian positions at Jefferson and Kennedy high schools.

Because of budget cuts to education at the state level, Cedar Rapids Schools needed to reduce their budget by $2.3 million, or approximately 1.6 percent of the total budget for teacher salaries. Each of the three high school principals were asked to eliminate the equivalent of four full-time employees going into the 2016–17 school year. Jefferson and Kennedy chose to cut their school librarians (called “media specialists” internally), leaving Washington as the only comprehensive high school in the district with a librarian next school year. Declining enrollment was also a factor in the diminished budget.

Photo by Naomi Hofferber
Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School

Budget cuts are not new to any district in Iowa, and Dr. Brad Buck, Superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community Schools, told those gathered that the district’s budget has been reduced by $20 million over the last five to six years. Buck said in terms of personnel, 150 positions have been eliminated since 2011, roughly a 50/50 mix of certified staff and support staff. Speaking toward library staffing in particular, Dr. Buck said eight years ago the district had a teacher-librarian in every elementary school. Now, elementary media specialists are covering two, sometimes three, schools. Media associate support has also been reduced in the middle schools.

Emmy Lane Palmersheim, a senior at Jefferson High School, spoke first and acknowledged: “Each high school in the district needs to cut four full-time employees. That’s the reality of the situation: four people, four friends, four people we know. Who then do we cut?” she asked the board, citing the increased class sizes and less individualized attention that would come with cutting core teacher positions.

Palmersheim mentioned options presented as part of the “Don’t Cut Cedar Rapids School Librarians” petition, which was introduced in reaction to this decision by, a national organization that helps public, school and college libraries with funding issues. Their motto is, “Any library initiative anywhere matters to every library everywhere.”

Included in the petition were suggestions such as eliminating fine arts or coaching positions. “Jefferson is home to a lot of at-risk students who need this individualized attention to stay on track and feel their teachers care and invest in them as students and as people,” Palmersheim said, addressing the bigger picture. “The choice to get rid of our librarian was not a choice made at Jefferson. It was made in Des Moines.” She encouraged the audience to vote in elections at all levels and to realize the huge impact of local and state elections.

Gary Anhalt, Vice-President and Director, At-Large, stated earlier, before allowing comments, that board members could not respond to the speakers per the code of Iowa. As Palmersheim left the podium, Dr. Buck asked, “Don’t you think she should drop the mic? That was awesome.” Mr. Anhalt recognized, “I’m proud of the product of our district. She did a marvelous job. I guess I’ll get in trouble if I go any further.” The levity from the board alleviated some tension in the room and the board appeared revitalized as they prepared to listen to additional statements.

Val Ehlers, a teacher-librarian shared by the Gladbrook-Reinbeck and Grundy Center school districts, presented a letter from the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians to the board and urged the board to block the librarian cuts. “Now more than ever, school librarians play a vital role. [They are] information experts who curate a collection of resources tailored to the students’ needs, technology specialists who develop ethical and capable digital citizens. They are essential partners to their colleagues.” Ehlers concluded, “It’s an equity issue,” and asked the board to weigh the long-term costs versus the short-term savings.

Mason Koelm, a junior at Jefferson, spoke in support of retaining librarian Becky Johnson, who was recognized as Iowa’s top school librarian in 2010. “This is going to ripple through all of Cedar Rapids,” Koelm said. He recalled reading a children’s almanac when he was younger and learning “Iowa has a literacy rate of 99 percent. To me, that was astounding. I was so proud to live in a state that valued education that much.” Koelm showed the group his public library card. “Other students don’t have that. Cutting librarians, cutting teachers, is taking away from the kids who don’t.”

He continued more generally, “We’re losing so many things. It’s scary, as a student, knowing how that’s going to affect us, because we rely on that. We rely on our teachers as role models, as supporters, as people we can turn to. And we’re being told we can’t turn to them now. There’s a gap that needs to be filled. And it belongs to all of us — the responsibility to fill that gap, to go and write to Congress, to vote, to see what changes we can make before it’s too late.”

Jan Anderson, teacher-librarian at Hiawatha and Viola Gibson elementaries, serving as spokesperson for teacher-librarians in the district, said, “First, taking away the librarians is not a good long-term solution to budget issues. It will have lasting negative impacts on a school library program that was once recognized as the best in the nation. Additionally, equity is another issue. How can we deny students full access at some buildings and not at others?”

At the end of the open comments, the board thanked those who spoke and closed the meeting without further conversation.

Though no students or parents from Kennedy High School spoke publicly at the meeting, Kennedy freshman Mackenzie Pattridge said later that she fears that “cutting funding for the school librarians would have many negative consequences on the student body.” She values the fact that they “have the knowledge necessary to locate any books I may need and also operate all of the technological devices which are in use all of the time.”

Jeff Weissenberger, a 1993 Kennedy graduate, former educator and father of two current Kennedy students, shared later, “As a parent, I’m disappointed. We should be encouraging students to read. Explore. Grow. Not every student has access to resources. Libraries are equalizers.”

Indeed, the school libraries are a great equalizer across a district with three high schools serving students from widely varied socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of preparedness. At Kennedy High School, 10 percent of students overall and 28 percent of those on free and reduced lunch do not meet reading proficiency per the Iowa Department of Education’s Iowa School Report Card for 2015. Jefferson High School was ranked as “needs improvement,” with 25 percent of students overall and 41 percent of students on free/reduced lunch failing to meet proficiency.

The petition states that, at the elementary level, studies conducted over the past 20 years have shown that students in schools with a full-time certified teacher-librarian perform better on state tests. They cite a 2015 study in which “the authors reviewed a multitude of studies which consistently show that students who have a full-time librarian in their schools perform better on their reading and writing scores than those who don’t have one.”

The CRCSD’s media specialists’ duties include managing their library’s collection, teaching media literacy and working with teachers on special projects. More than that, they prepare students for the challenges of college, teaching them to research and obtain usable, vetted information. They encourage critical thinking skills and share real-world wisdom.

Principals Jason Kline and Charles McDonnell of Kennedy and Jefferson high schools, respectively, declined to comment about the situation. However, lack of education funding across the state means difficult decisions must be made in all districts, by all administrators. As school board president John Laverty stated, “There are no good trade-offs.”

Susan Bednar Blind is a Cedar Rapids native and University of Iowa graduate. She enjoys writing, cult television shows and embarrassing her nine-year-old, and volunteers extensively in the community. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 199.

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