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The disgraceful interrogation of L.A. school librarians

If state education cuts are drastic, the librarians' only chance of keeping a paycheck is to prove they're qualified to be switched to classroom teaching. So LAUSD attorneys grill them.

May 13, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Anabella Maldonaldon, 5, perched on the shoulders of her father, George, shouts during a protest in Los Angeles. Anabella's mother, Linda, was laid off from her teaching job at Hazeltine School in March. See full story
Anabella Maldonaldon, 5, perched on the shoulders of her father, George,… (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles…)

In a basement downtown, the librarians are being interrogated.

On most days, they work in middle schools and high schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District, fielding student queries about American history and Greek mythology, and retrieving copies of vampire novels.

But this week, you'll find them in a makeshift LAUSD courtroom set up on the bare concrete floor of a building on East 9th Street. Several sit in plastic chairs, watching from an improvised gallery as their fellow librarians are questioned.

A court reporter takes down testimony. A judge grants or denies objections from attorneys. Armed police officers hover nearby. On the witness stand, one librarian at a time is summoned to explain why she — the vast majority are women — should be allowed to keep her job.

The librarians are guilty of nothing except earning salaries the district feels the need to cut. But as they're cross-examined by determined LAUSD attorneys, they're continually put on the defensive.

"When was the last time you taught a course for which your librarian credential was not required?" an LAUSD attorney asked Laura Graff, the librarian at Sun Valley High School, at a court session on Monday.

"I'm not sure what you're asking," Graff said. "I teach all subjects, all day. In the library."

"Do you take attendance?" the attorney insisted. "Do you issue grades?"

I've seen a lot of strange things in two decades as a reporter, but nothing quite as disgraceful and weird as this inquisition the LAUSD is inflicting upon more than 80 school librarians.

"With my experience, it makes me angry to be interrogated," Graff told me after the 40 minutes she spent on the witness stand, describing the work she's done at libraries and schools going back to the 1970s. "I don't think any teacher-librarian needs to sit here and explain how they help teach students."

Sitting in during two court sessions this week, I felt bad for everyone present, including the LAUSD attorneys. After all, in the presence of a school librarian, you feel the need to whisper and be respectful. It must be very difficult, I thought, to grill a librarian.

For LAUSD officials, it's a means to an end: balancing the budget.

Some 85 credentialed teacher-librarians got layoff notices in March. If state education cuts end up being as bad as most think likely, their only chance to keep a paycheck is to prove that they're qualified to be transferred into classroom teaching jobs.

Since all middle and high school librarians are required to have a state teaching credential in addition to a librarian credential, this should be an easy task — except for a school district rule that makes such transfers contingent on having taught students within the last five years.

To get the librarians off the payroll, the district's attorneys need to prove to an administrative law judge that the librarians don't have that recent teaching experience. To try to prove that they do teach, the librarians, in turn, come to their hearings with copies of lesson plans they've prepared and reading groups they've organized.

Sandra Lagasse, for 20 years the librarian at White Middle School in Carson, arrived at the temporary courtroom Wednesday with copies of her lesson plans in Greek word origins and mythology.

On the witness stand, she described tutoring students in geometry and history, including subjects like the Hammurabi Code. Her multi-subject teaching credential was entered into evidence as "Exhibit 515."

Lagasse also described the "Reading Counts" program she runs in the library, in which every student in the school is assessed for reading skills.

"This is not a class, correct?" a school district attorney asked her during cross-examination.

"No," she said. "It is part of a class."

"There is no class at your school called 'Reading Counts'? Correct."

"No."

Lagasse endured her time on the stand with quiet dignity and confidence. She described how groups of up to 75 students file into her library — and how she works individually with many students.

Later she told me: "I know I'm doing my job right when a student tells me, 'Mrs. Lagasse, that book you gave me was so good. Do you have anything else like it?' "

It's a noble profession. And it happens to be the only one Michael Bernard wants to practice.

"It's true, I'm a librarian and that's all I want to be," said the librarian at North Hollywood High School, who has been a librarian for 23 years and has a master's degree in library science.

"The larger issue is the destruction of school libraries," Bernard told me. "None of the lawyers was talking about that."

School district rules say that only a certified teacher-librarian can manage a school library. So if Bernard is laid off, his library, with its 40,000 books and new computer terminals, could be shut down.

Word of the libraries' pending doom is starting to spread through the district. Adalgisa Grazziani, the librarian at Marshall High School, told me that the kids at her school are asking if they can take home books when the library there is closed.

"Can I have the fantasy collection?" one asked her.

If they could speak freely at their dismissal hearings, the librarians likely would tell all present what a tragedy it is to close a library.

Instead, they sit and try to politely answer such questions as, "Have you ever taught physical education?"

It doesn't seem right to punish an educator for choosing the quiet and contemplation of book stacks over the noise and hubbub of a classroom or a gymnasium. But that's where we are in these strange and stupid times.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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