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Natomas Unified closes all 8 elementary school libraries

By Diana Lambert
Published: Friday, May. 28, 2010 - 12:00 am

Is it the end of an era, or just a blip on the education budget radar?

As school districts throughout the Sacramento region confront another year of multimillion-dollar deficits, school libraries have moved into the cross hairs.

On Thursday, the Natomas Unified School District closed all eight of its elementary school libraries in a last-ditch effort to overcome a $17.3 million shortfall.

"These kinds of cuts are a last resort," said Heidi Van Zant, Natomas district spokeswoman. "No one wants to close elementary school libraries, but our budget situation is so severe there was no choice."

Across the region, schools are closing libraries, laying off library staff or drastically cutting back hours. Unless funding improves, the traditional school library may join band, art, chorus, shop and other programs that have all but disappeared from the education landscape.

"We used to have dance and art," said Ramneek Kaur, a fourth-grade student at Bannon Creek Elementary in Natomas Unified. "Now, no books. All that is left is PE."

School libraries have always been more than a place to go for quiet reading and study. Decades ago, that's where kids were introduced to the Dewey Decimal System, encyclopedias and research methods. In recent years, they have become media centers with computers and other technology – and staff trained to support them.

Earlier this week, Ramneek and the rest of her fourth-grade class circled the tables in the Bannon Creek library excitedly picking through books to take home. Library technician Clara Allen was clearing out excess paperbacks before the library doors were locked for good Thursday.

Allen has been with the district 29 years. Thursday was her final day of work.

Over the years, she said, the school's library has served as a venue for small performances, kindergarten graduation, book fairs and author visits, as well as a place to study and check out books.

"Somewhere, they should have found a way to keep the libraries open," Allen said. "To me, it's very important to have a book in the kids' hands.

Natomas Unified hopes to reopen the libraries once the budget situation improves. For now, schools will lock the doors and leave the books and supplies inside.

Elk Grove Unified also has targeted the library program for cuts. This month, 57 elementary school library technicians were given their final layoff notices. District officials said the libraries aren't closing. Each school's staff will develop a plan to provide access to books, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman.

Folsom Cordova Unified closed its libraries last summer, but last-minute concessions from the teachers union allowed the district to reopen them with limited hours. Superintendent Patrick Godwin has recommended cutting seven of the 11 full-time library positions next school year.

Even Twin Rivers Unified, which is planning to add three libraries over two years, could decrease library hours if the budget shortfalls continue, said Trinette Marquis, district spokesman. The money to add the new libraries is coming from a special pot of funds limited to improving facilities.

Staffing school libraries with parents or other volunteers as a means of keeping them open is not an option. The state Education Code prohibits replacing a laid-off person with volunteers, said Sacramento County schools chief David Gordon.

One district bucking the trend is Sacramento City Unified. The district is keeping libraries open and even increasing funding for middle school libraries next year.

"I'm proud of our superintendent and his vision," said Martha Rowland, district coordinator of library services. "I don't know how that vision will be funded, but he has the right idea – that libraries are important to kids."

Even so, the district has four schools with no library workers and staffs its elementary school libraries only two to three days a week.

Will closing school libraries have an impact? No one knows, said Connie Williams, past president of the California Library Association and a librarian at Petaluma High School.

She said studies show that having an active teacher-librarian at a school raises student achievement.

"Across the United States, research has shown that students in schools with good school libraries learn more, get better grades, and score higher on standardized test scores than their peers in schools without libraries," according to a report from the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science.

Allen, Bannon Creek's outgoing technician, is worried about the kids who don't have computers. The library offered four for their use. She's concerned about who will order the textbooks and keep them organized. And she wonders what will become of the school's book collection.

"It's a sad day," she said.

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