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Lawrence school district librarians shocked after learning of plans to cut most of their jobs

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Article updated to add district comment at 6:03 p.m. Thursday:

Lawrence school district librarians and library media assistants were “blindsided” Wednesday after being informed that two-thirds of the librarians’ jobs were being cut, even before the school board has made any final budget cut decisions.

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The district is facing a budget shortfall estimated between $3.2 and $3.85 million dollars, and an updated estimate shows that the district will likely need to save between $3.62 and $4.27 million. School board members have said they’re looking to make around $7 million in cuts to provide staff raises and rebuild depleted reserve funds. 

District administrators suggested a “reorganization of library/media” in their latest budget recommendations, for a savings of $605,282. School board members had questions about the proposal at their work session this week, and staff said they would provide more information before the board makes final budget cut decisions on Monday. 

But the district isn’t waiting to warn librarians that major cuts are coming, they say. 

When Marisa Hegeman, librarian at Free State High School, saw the number six in a WebEx meeting Wednesday, she thought that number indicated lost jobs, and she knew she was on the chopping block.

“Most of my colleagues were crying … I saw the number six and I thought, ‘That is the cut they’re making: the six secondary librarians,’” she said.

“And then I realized that was the staff they were retaining. I think we were all just dumbfounded.”

The district plans to make up for cutting 12 of 18 librarians by hiring more library media assistants, or LMAs, Hegeman said. The LMAs would be the only library staff at the middle and high school levels, and the remaining six librarians would spend most of their time teaching in the 12 elementary schools, she said. 

During Wednesday’s meeting, two administrators showed librarians proposed budget staffing ratios. Amid the “shocked” and tearful reaction, the administrators told the librarians that they could attempt to put together a new proposal that cuts just as deep, and that could be presented to the board, Hegeman said. 

They were given a day and a half to put that together, said Kirsten Rusinak, librarian at Lawrence High School, and they were not given the option to present their own proposal directly to the board.

“We’re rather suspicious and think that this plan has been in place for some time, particularly because the dollar amount that they listed … was a very specific number,” she said. 

Administrators who led the meeting, representatives for the district, and school board members did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

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Hegeman, who has worked in the district for 17 years, said she “wished” she was surprised at how this has played out. 

“There were a lot of tears yesterday, (but today) I progressed into feeling angry because it feels like there’s a lack of transparency and a lack of respect,” she said. “If they really valued libraries, we would be thinking outside the box and spending more time digging into how we could reduce some inefficiencies, but still protect our services and our staffing.”

Rusinak and Hegeman said they were concerned about the transparency in this situation for a number of reasons. Rusinak said she believes building administrators were unaware that librarians were already being cut. 

“Interestingly, the board had made a point of saying that we would like building administration — so, principals — to make suggestions for where they could make cuts, and I have confidence that the principals at Lawrence High, at least, would not have just offered me up,” Rusinak said.

Hegeman said there seemed to be a “lack of understanding” during the school board’s budget work session because administrators did not go into details about what library restructuring would look like, despite that “they obviously had the Excel chart that they shared with us the next day, and had had since March 11.”

“I thought, as a community, we have spoken and said, ‘We want the cuts to have the least impact on students,’” Hegeman said. “But from my point of view, the majority of the cuts are coming at the cost of classified and certified staff members, which work directly with students and have the greatest impact.”

With cuts to librarians, LMAs will have to pick up the slack. Hegeman mentioned her respect for the work that all LMAs do, noting the LMAs at Free State and Lawrence High School specifically — Chris Everett and Steven Wilson, respectively.

“They’re amazing, but the idea of having them do not only their own job, which is challenging enough, but then the job of certified teachers with a master’s degree in Library Science at the pay they’re currently receiving is … just mind-blowing,” Hegeman said.

Everett said many students opt to spend their individual learning time in the library, meaning there could be between 80 and 100 students she is supervising at any given time. She also assists with students having printing troubles and solves IT problems, she said.

“Your whole day is helping people, but then on top of that, supervising these kids all day long,” Everett said. “I don’t know how you can go to the bathroom or eat your lunch.”

Wilson — also an active member of PAL-CWA, the district’s classified staff union — expressed similar frustration, saying that LMAs have taken on a secondary IT role and absorbed a central role in textbook distribution.

“Administration has no clue what libraries do,” he said. “… We’d be doing the job of a classified person and a certified person at the same time with a classified person’s wage. And that’s just typical management labor tricks, you know — trying to replace somebody and pay somebody else less money.” 

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Hegeman said that asking an LMA to run the library is “too much workload for any one person, especially on a classified salary,” and said the burden would be even greater at Free State. Everett is retiring at the end of this year, so if the FSHS library is to be run by an LMA, it will be an unknown person.

“I think it really just shows a lack of understanding of what both of our individual roles are,” she said. “There are many things that an LMA would not be able to do in regards to student privacy, certification to teach lessons, financial ordering, reconciling budgets, things that … I guess, the expectation possibly would be that they could do it, but they’re not able to.” 

Karen Wycoff, librarian at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, has faced this before. Due to budget cuts in 2010, each high school lost a full time librarian, and Wycoff lost her job as an elementary librarian, she said.

“At that time, I went back into the classroom for two years unil a position opened up, and then I had to interview to get back into the library, which I was a little upset about,” she said. “It (Wednesday’s meeting) brought back those feelings and what happened then.”

When she lost her job, she was able to stay in the district as a fifth grade teacher for two years until the next librarian position opened.

“They’re always asking us to sacrifice the program and what we do to get a budget that will work for them, and so it’s disheartening. It makes me angry and sad,” Wycoff said.

One of Hegeman’s top concerns is that, once cut, librarians will fade from the district forever.

“Our track record in USD 497 is when we cut something, it does not come back,” she said.

Ultimately, librarians are worried that district leaders do not value their work.

“It was just really disheartening for me, who’s worked for the district for 17 years to realize that our — I felt like it shows our district leadership team does not value libraries or librarians,” Hegeman said.

District spokesperson Julie Boyle responded via email around 6 p.m. Thursday, after this article was published.

“No specific cuts have been determined for budget recommendations involving staffing and won’t be until after the board makes decisions,” Boyle wrote. “At Tuesday’s meeting, the board directed administration to get feedback from library media staff. That was the purpose of the meeting. Administration also informed staff about the recommendation since some had not been following the budget planning process closely during the past several months.”

The Lawrence school board is set to meet at 6 p.m. Monday, March 28. Board members have said they want to have final decisions on budget cuts by the end of that meeting so that staff members can plan and so negotiations with unions can proceed.

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Emma Bascom (she/her), reporter, can be reached at ebascom (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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