Barras: Good news for libraries, or more empty talk?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Education advocates weren't dancing in the streets last week after their meeting with DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. But some were smiling -- just a little.

"I felt very positive and hopeful for the future of the libraries," said Suzanne Wells, a founder of the Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization, or CHPSPO, which has been driving the effort to save librarians and push the city into making a greater investment in school libraries.

Neither Henderson nor her chief spokeswoman, Melissa Salmanowitz, bothered to respond to multiple requests from me -- made via email and telephone -- for a comment.

CHPSPO's citywide campaign began earlier this year when Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Henderson eliminated funding in this 2012-2013 school year for those positions at small schools. Principals at larger schools were required to use "flexible" funding if they wanted to hold onto librarians. That money often covers instructional costs.

That decisions means this year 58 schools will not have librarians, which is absolutely ridiculous for a city struggling to raise its reading scores. Recent test results indicate only 44 percent of DCPS students are proficient in reading.

Wells said Henderson promised to "look into" whether "excessed" librarians could continue to serve in their previous positions. But that might be a difficult trick to pull off.

After all, being excessed essentially means there was no position available; a person technically has been fired. Under the union contract, however, those individuals who were evaluated as highly effective or effective must be retained on the DCPS payroll for one year.

Advocates argued it made no sense to have a bunch of librarians collecting paychecks while schools did without them. They're right.

But if Henderson attempts to return librarians to their previous positions, even at different schools, does it mean that there was a position available, and thus, they should not have been targeted for layoffs?

The chancellor also promised to examine how librarians could be placed at middle and high schools this year and to review how library funding in the DCPS budget has been spent.

The DCPS budget, which is managed by fiscal agents under the control and supervision of Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, always has been a mess. A recent independent review conducted under the auspices of the city auditor and internal DCPS documents are particularly troublesome -- especially since Henderson, even with an $800 million budget, has been crying poor mouth for the past several months.

Perhaps the sure thing advocates were able to secure is Henderson's commitment to create a task force that would make recommendations on how DCPS could use and should invest in its school libraries. She told Wells and other advocates that she wanted to establish that committee so recommendations could be made in time to influence the 2014 budget.

But at this moment, no one really knows when that task force will be created or who will be its members. The chancellor's not talking. It could be she was simply pandering.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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