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School cuts put libraries in danger

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2009
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A budget squeeze is forcing Franklin officials to consider laying off school librarians as one measure toward closing its deficit. It is seen as a grim possibility, one that other communities have also faced.

"We're choosing from among a selection of bad choices," said Wayne Ogden, superintendent of Franklin's school system, noting that the jobs of five librarians are on the line in an attempt to balance the budget for next fiscal year. "I feel guilty even making these kinds of recommendations."

The five librarians are deployed among Franklin's 10 schools, and "while they do teach kids library skills, their interactions with the kids professionally are different than classroom teachers," Ogden said.

A number of area towns have grappled with similar concerns in the face of budget deficits.

Ashland serves as something of a cautionary tale for cutting school library services. The district shut down all of its libraries for this school year except for the high school's facility, after residents last spring turned down a nearly $500,000 property-tax increase.

It hasn't been easy, says Marcia Reni, cochairwoman of the town's School Committee.

In order to retain some semblance of library services, some teachers have been bringing students to the Ashland Public Library for research and instructional purposes, Reni said.

"We've been surviving this year, but it's been a big loss to the system," Reni said. "The teachers and the students miss the libraries - it's been dreadful."

There are no plans to bring back the other school libraries next year, but "there's also been no talk on the School Committee of closing the high school library," Reni said. "There are some places where you have to draw a line in the sand, and closing the high school library is beyond anything we can think about."

Craig Harris, the School Committee chairman in Westborough, said his town has cut 18 school positions to close a $770,000 deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1, but left the libraries alone.

"That's not to say there won't be in the future," Harris hastened to add. "We're looking at some pretty substantial shortfalls - the worst is yet to come."

Harris acknowledged that some do not view school libraries as a core service, which might make protecting them more difficult as budgets get tighter.

"The priority for any school department is instruction for the kids," Harris said. "Where the library falls in . . . it may be a bit of a luxury. I don't know."

School boards in other communities have been able to keep library services in their budgets for the coming year, but officials say they recognize that the task could get more challenging.

Margaret Coppe, School Committee chairwoman in Lexington, said her board has specifically sought to protect library services in the schools.

"The administration and School Committee look over all the programs, but the libraries are of important value to both the schools and the town," Coppe said. "Protecting libraries is important to us, and hopefully we'll always be able to have that stance."

The town's six elementary schools, two middle schools, and high school all have libraries with staff members serving important educational roles, Coppe said.

"Librarians do more than check out books - they run programs and a fairly active technology center where students do research," Coppe said. "If you lost your librarian and had the books . . . you also lose that person in the school who aids children in a way that the classroom teacher doesn't have time for."

Librarians are "teachers, too," Coppe added. "We have to remember that in our discussions."

In Wayland, the $31.1 million budget approved by Town Meeting last week did not involve cuts in school libraries, according to Louis Jurist, chairman of the School Committee, in part because the town consolidated its elementary schools - and some library services - last year.

And in Weston, library and technology functions were combined in the elementary schools a few years back, said School Committee chairwoman Maryanne Rogers.

"We use librarians who also have technology experience," Rogers said. "We looked ahead. Our libraries are more like media centers now - they really have to handle a multitude of areas."

In Franklin, meanwhile, laying off librarians might be the best option for a system that let 45 teachers go for this school year, after voters last spring turned down a requested tax increase, Ogden said.

Although officials hope federal stimulus funds and wage freezes will help prevent drastic cuts again, the school superintendent's worst-case scenario for next school year involves laying off 60 people.

"You can imagine the catastrophic effect of losing 60 teachers would be on class size," Ogden said.

Franklin's school administrators are considering other options as well, including a move to half-day kindergarten, in aiming for a $52.5 million budget, he said, but as of last week remained more than $2.5 million short.

"Nothing is going to come off the table," said Jeffrey Roy, chairman of the Franklin School Committee. "When you get to this level of budgeting, you've trimmed around all the edges and really have to go after the core items. It's puzzling to me that people express surprise that we're at this point."