Crowds of students and adults spoke at the Bedford school board meeting March 29, imploring board members to restore the 4.4 school library positions that were cut last year. Only one lone librarian covers five elementary schools in a district that spans 60 miles.
It was a bittersweet night in this Westchester County district. It was just a scant few days before the start of National School Library Month, a time when libraries are usually celebrated and explored; when librarians become cheerleaders for the resources that ramp up library learning.
But these Bedford librarians are sad. And so are the young students who came to them, again and again, for book recommendations, creative time or help with research for a school projects.
Susan Polos (at right), a member of the Bedford Teachers Association, served at one of those elementary libraries for 17 years. She called the loss of her job “devastating.”
Yet, she remains emboldened to keep fighting for restoration of the positions, even as she finds her way being a librarian at the district’s high school.
Many schools across the state experience the same situation. In times of budget strife, elementary librarians are targeted because they are not mandated – a situation NYSUT would like to flip.
The Library Media Specialists proposal is a NYSUT- proposed bill (A.6023 Solages Education Committee) in the New York State Assembly. It would require all districts to maintain a school library in each elementary school building and employ a certified school library media specialist for each such library.
“I feel my own district is making an error,” Polos said. “The kids who are coming up will be at a deficit for reading and learning. There’s a difference between a report and research … The value of a librarian is to take the bones of a report and infuse (a student) with inquiry skills.”
Last year, teachers, parents, students and community residents protested the budget cuts. With a $9 million deficit, the public voted on whether to override the tax cap. The vote in favor was 58.7 percent, just shy of the 60 percent super majority needed to override the cap.
“NYSUT sent down signs when we had a rally to get the money restored,” Polos said. Later, NYSUT helped the local union set up phone banks to call people and urge them to vote yes on the budget. NYSUT has been pressing the legislature to change the tax cap law to require a simple majority vote to override.
“Clearly more members of the community wanted to support a budget that was beyond the tax cap…and that didn’t matter because the tax cap law is structured in a way that requires a disproportionate number of voters to pass the budget than turn it down,” said Michael Groarke, a music teacher and president of the 440-member Bedford TA.
“On an annual basis the budget has to be approved by voters. The law requires a 60 percent override for a budget that meets the needs of a community. This does not fit the description of rare and exceptional cases as the constitution provides for. The tax cap is one proponent of the governor’s agenda to starve public schools in favor of charter schools,” Groarke said. “We were forced into an absolutely austere type of budget development and library became the victim.”
Having logged many years roaming the stacks, surfing the web, reading periodicals and new books, learning new technology to share with teachers and students, and talking with blossoming readers, Polos knows the soul of a school library.
“A library is really a personal space,” she said. “It’s considered a safe space for many reasons. You’re not being assessed. You can pick up a book on any level.
She misses the “terrific books groups,” she had with students, including two mock John Newbery Medal groups, where students learned evaluation skills that Polos explained are “transferrable from literature to everything else.” She helped host a Newbery banquet at the school, attended by well-known authors including Newbery winner Kwame Alexander. Students Skyped with other winners as well.
A plethora of fabulous children’s books sparkle and beckon on library shelves.
“We’re really in kind of a golden age of children’s literature,” Polos said.
Polos served on the official national Newbery Medal Committee in 2014. She is also a past president of the New York Library Association, and is a National Board Certified Teacher.
Now, the library where she devoted her days is staffed by volunteers and aides, and visited about one day a week by the one librarian who travels to five libraries.
“What she can accomplish is radically different and not in a good way,” Groarke said.
In addition to everyday literacy needs of all young learners, Groarke noted that the district has had an “exponential” increase in English Language Learners. Having professional librarians available would help them significantly. “Librarians would go out of their way to figure out how to make the library experience a rich one for those kids … how to make collection culturally relevant,” he said.
Librarians, Polos said, know the books from the classics to the contemporary. They get to know the students, and what they’ve read, and can help them to stretch their reading skills by recommending books they know will light up a particular child.
“For children to be exposed to literature now, it requires a librarian to know the books that are coming out now,” she said.
Polos also misses mixing it up with students at MakerSpace, which she describes as “a movement that’s taken hold in the country using innovation and collaboration. We had groups of kids working on curricular projects, on robotics, on electronics, and even with glue and felt.”
Now, she is learning the stories teens yearn for in high school, a time, she said, when “oftentimes students have stopped seeing themselves as readers. They’re very social, often travel in packs.” Reading and reflection, she said, are quiet, contemplative acts.
Polos has started a book club at the high school and is advisor to the Gender Sexuality Alliance. “Young adult literature is pretty phenomenal,” she said.
Yes, even at the high school post, not enough services are available. There should be one librarian for every 1,000 students; the high school has 1,500. The other librarian who served there was cut in 2014. Three years ago, Bedford had eight librarians.
The current budget proposal now being developed would restore 1.5 of the four elementary librarians cut last year.
A building representative for the Bedford TA, Polos has become more active in her union. She is a delegate this year to the NYSUT Representative Assembly in April 7-8 in New York City, where once again she will work to get her voice heard and to listen to others.