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Throwing the book at school libraries

L.A. Unified lays off library aides and slashes their hours when it should be addressing huge reading deficiencies.

September 14, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Library aide Mary Bates reads The Giving Tree to students at Burton Elementary School. Her hours are being cut and she is losing her health benefits.
Library aide Mary Bates reads The Giving Tree to students at Burton Elementary… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

It's September, a time to remind children that we care about them and have high hopes and all that.

So what's going on in Los Angeles Unified?

The school district is dumping 227 of its 430 elementary school library aides and cutting the hours of another 193 aides in half.

Welcome back to school, kids.

At Burton Elementary in Panorama City on Tuesday morning, library aide Mary Bates was wondering whether to fight, pack up her belongings for a transfer to her fourth school in two years, or have a good cry.

"I can't tell you how many kids have told me they'll miss me," Bates said under a sign that reads "Books Can Take You Anywhere."

At Lowman Special Education Center in North Hollywood, aide Franny Parrish found a new purpose in life four years ago after a career in acting and music producing. But after growing to love her severely disabled students, she got hit with a layoff notice and has no job prospects at the age of 63.

"I never enjoyed doing anything so much as I've enjoyed this," said Parrish, whose last day will be Sept. 23.

Meanwhile, principals were left with the kind of uncertainty that has become standard operating procedure in LAUSD, unsure as to whether they'll have libraries or who will run them. Many of the aides who survived this cut are being transferred to schools so far from where they live, they might decide it's not worth it because they'll burn half their pay just getting to and from work.

It was chaos, and it remained unclear whether amateur volunteers might be recruited to keep libraries open, or whether there might be a last-minute chance of restoring the positions and rescinding the layoff notices.

You had to wonder how district officials can prattle on about the goal of improving literacy while cutting off the primary access thousands of students have to books.

"There's a certain hope, and magic, too, in returning to school," said former school board member David Tokofsky. "Books and libraries are part of that, and if you lose the magic pieces, you're building an institution that has no pulse, blood flow and heart."

And this follows the district disgrace chronicled in the spring by my colleague Hector Tobar, in which full-time librarian/teachers were subjected to an inquisition and had to defend their teaching skills. Why? Because their libraries were in danger of being shut, and if they weren't returned to classrooms, they might end up on the unemployment line.

Speaking of which, the latest census figures show that unemployment and the number of people without medical insurance are up, and 2.2 million California children now live in poverty.

"Policymakers should not balance state and federal budgets at the expense of the families who have been hardest hit by the economic downturn," Jean Ross of the California Budget Project said in a statement. "At the same time … policymakers should focus on proven strategies for improving the state's competitiveness — strengthening our schools, our colleges and universities, and other public structures that are fundamental to job growth and a healthy economy."

Sound advice, if you ask me. But the combination of a bad economy, lousy leadership and boiling disdain for anything government-related has produced a demolition derby.

In defense of LAUSD, it's one of the state's biggest slashing victims. But it's unclear from one week to the next what's on the chopping block in the district, or even how decisions are made.

The district has roughly $1 billion in flexible state funds for library aides, magnet staff, early education, preschool programs and the like.

Don't we deserve a full public discussion in which we can question the wisdom of destroying an elementary school library system in a district with huge reading deficiencies? And if library cuts absolutely had to be made, why couldn't that have been handled before the start of the school year to avoid all this disruption?

Several library aides I spoke to had a fair question for Supt. John Deasy:

If he could tap deep-pocket friends and huge nonprofits to pay for a battalion of new senior executives in the district, couldn't he have hit up some of those same people to cover the cost of library aides?

"Honestly, I think they get a lot of bang for their buck from us," a tearful Mary Bates said at Burton Elementary. Bates, a library aide since 1998, makes $16 an hour. Because of seniority-based bumping in her union, she has been transferred to another school, effective Sept. 26, where she would be allowed to work only 15 hours a week and would lose her healthcare benefits.

"If I don't find a second job, I could lose my home," Bates said.

"She's very good at what she does, and she pays for a lot of supplies out of her own pocket," said Burton Principal Roger Wilcox, who was trying to wrestle the many-tentacled bureaucratic beast and keep Bates at Burton. But even if he can, can one person meet the needs of 700 students — many of them impoverished — in just three hours each day?

At Lowman, special ed instructor Dina Swann told me the library was virtually empty and unused until Franny Parrish arrived and turned it into a treasured resource.

"I don't know who's going to be able to do what she's done," Swann said.

Or whether anyone will be available to even try.

So much for the magic at the start of another school year.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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