Budget burns books

Librarians worry about the future of their jobs and of literacy in Nevada schools

Mary Alice McGee, the librarian at Pine Middle School, says she’s already swamped, but she fears that things will get much worse—soon.

Mary Alice McGee, the librarian at Pine Middle School, says she’s already swamped, but she fears that things will get much worse—soon.

Photo by Deidre Pike

It is a dark and potentially stormy night for school libraries in Washoe County, where specters of budget cuts loom. Rumors from the far-off Land of California frighten Nevada’s Keepers of Words. It is said of California that public school librarians there have gone the way of the dodo. It is said that parent volunteers now take shifts checking out books from the decimated shelves. It is said that instruction in library research has become sporadic and, in some cases, non-existent.

These tales worry school librarians such as Mary Alice McGee at Pine Middle School. McGee, who has a master’s degree in library science, calls herself “the real McCoy,” and she looks it—from her comfortable shoes to her short, white hair to her wire-framed glasses. Her days are frenzied. This story begins with an apology because she doesn’t have time to sit down and talk Friday, though she’s happy to have a reporter follow her around as she works.

“We’ve had projects, projects, projects, projects,” she says. “Now we’re trying to get everything wrapped up.”

Four kids walk in to use the Internet. Besides having one computer in every classroom, Pine’s library has four Internet stations for the school’s 1,300 students. McGee chats with students, looks up each name in a binder. To use the Internet, each student must have a signed permission slip on file. While McGee looks up names, more students arrive, returning books at the last minute or asking to take quizzes that accompany the school’s accelerated reader books.

McGee tells the students that they have to share a computer. They have 10 minutes to find and print out the needed information.

“Then you’re out,” she tells them. In a half-second between setting up these students and greeting a shy boy she addresses as José, she turns to me: “I’m in the trenches here.”

She asks José if he knows where two overdue library books are.

José shakes his head no.

“I’ll print out a list of the books you have, and you look for them, OK?”

She turns to another group walking in the door: “Can I help you?”

Parents worry over music and sports in the schools. Talk of cuts to the JROTC receive plenty of attention, as did cuts to alternative education such as the Regional Technical Institute. But possible cuts to the school libraries would affect students at every level of their educations, says Ellen Fockler, the school district’s library media coordinator. Studies done in several states, such as Texas, Colorado and Alaska, all show a positive correlation, she says, between well-stocked libraries run by trained librarians and higher test scores.

In Nevada, the growing number of transient and English-as-a-second-language students makes the state goal of getting every child to read by the third grade extra hard. Many of these students, Fockler says, don’t have access to printed materials at home. Many have no way to get to a public library other than the one at school.

“So many times libraries operate in the background,” Fockler says. “It’s one of those things you miss the most when it isn’t there. They really are essential, and even more essential now that we have so many little guys who don’t have the resources at home.”

At first glance, the proposed school district cut doesn’t look terribly frightening. On the list of possible trims, a 10 percent cut to library services is sandwiched between identical cuts to counseling for K-12 and school police.

The cut would mean a loss of about 11 full-time-equivalent positions, which translates to losing a bunch of part-time positions. No educational level would be exempt.

In high schools, library assistants would be fired. Since some high schools have libraries that open at 6 a.m. and don’t close until after 3:30 p.m. (almost 10 hours a day), Fockler says that the loss of an assistant could cause the library to be closed for part of the day, whether that’s in the best interest of students or not.

In middle schools, assistant-librarian hours would be cut and schools would share librarians. That scares McGee, who finds herself stretched just trying to deal with Pine’s 1,300 students with help from assistant Anne Dickerson for five hours a day.

What worries Fockler the most is cuts at the elementary school level, where librarians are hourly employees with annual incomes of $13,000 to $21,000. Each elementary school has one such librarian, and the proposed cuts would directly affect both the librarians’ already-low salaries and the number of hours the library could be open.

“To reach the amount we have to reach, we have to cut enough hours so that the school libraries will have to be closed one full day every two weeks, or a half-day every week,” Fockler says. That will cut into literacy programs like the accelerated reader program, where kids come to the library once a week during class time.

“This limits access to the library,” Fockler says. “It’s hard enough to get every class into the library every week. … We can’t teach these kids to read if we can’t give them books to read. Access to the school library is doubly important.”

Once upon a time, McGee’s annual budget for new books and technology was around $25,000—now it’s lurking around $5,000. That has to cover supplies, instructional videos, software, encyclopedias that run between $800 and $1,200 per set and new books (average cost $18) and books to replace about $1,000 worth of reading materials that get lost each year.

One year, McGee spent her entire budget on a new computer.

“The money has dwindled,” she says, dismally pointing out old filmstrips and vinyl records that she keeps around because there isn’t any money to replace them with updated media. It is hard, she admits, to keep machinery like filmstrip projectors and record players running. You can’t exactly buy new parts for these 1960s and 1970s circa gizmos.

McGee is proud of several rows of VHS tapes, including a few homemade tapes. Buying educational material on video tape is getting harder. Seems the rest of the world is moving to something called DVDs. McGee predicts that Pine won’t be upgrading any time soon.

McGee moves on through her domain, kicking kids off computers, helping others locate needed materials. She points to stacks of books purchased as Nevada Young Readers and a small shelf of books in Spanish that were purchased through a generous Dermody Foundation donation. Even a few hundred dollars is put to good use, McGee says.

Between students who begin school without speaking any English and those who are in eighth grade and still reading at a kindergarten level, the challenge seems clear.

“We’ve gotten edicts to get those reading levels up,” she says. “So we do everything possible. … But we are swamped. The problem is that there isn’t enough time in the day.”

McGee credits legislators like Nevada Sen. Bernice Martin Mathews with helping get small amounts of additional funding from the state. At-risk schools can apply for small grants (a few hundred dollars or so) from the fund to buy additional resources for the libraries.

“It may not be a lot of money," she says. "But money is money. … The biggest concern right now is keeping all of this going."