N.J. school librarians are reduced in volume

Many districts cut positions over budget constraints. Whether they should be restored is under debate.

Posted: September 28, 2012

Once a staple of nearly every school, the school librarian/media specialist is feeling underappreciated these days, if not under siege.

Over the last five years, the number of certified library/media specialists in New Jersey public schools has dropped by almost 15 percent, according to the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, whose own membership has been cut almost in half.

There were 1,580 certified specialists statewide last year, down from 1,850 in 2007-08, serving about 2,500 schools.

The biggest contributor to the drop was the state budget crisis two years ago. Library positions were among the first to be cut in districts looking to trim staff, association officers and local officials said.

There has been little recovery. Budgets have remained tight, and schools have been unwilling to restore the positions as debate rages over what the role of school librarian should be.

Some wonder whether it is necessary to have a specialist - or even a library - to help students find resources when information is often readily accessible through classroom computers.

To counter that, the librarians' association has launched a public awareness campaign explaining its members' importance.

The campaign is being waged in other states as well. The association is rallying around the Common Core State Standards, a national effort to develop a unified curriculum and testing.

Association leaders say specialists remain critical to schools, helping students navigate the Internet and other resources much as they once did just with books and periodicals.

"What we are teaching kids is how to deal with all of this information coming at them," said Amy Rominiecki, president of the librarians' association and a media specialist at Seneca High School in the Lenape Regional High School District in Burlington County.

Without them, added Pat Massey, librarian at South Brunswick High School, "the students are at a loss, the school community is at a loss."

The association cited a 2011 study of New Jersey school libraries conducted by the Rutgers Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries that found vibrant library programs provide widespread benefits, helping build not just academic skills but also cooperation and community within a school.

"The school library is the learning center where people can go and work with a specialist and do things in a cross-content approach," said Massey, the association's former president.

Rominiecki said the cause was not lost. She said that her own district still has two specialists in each high school, and that other districts were moving to ensure similar staffing.

Still, the trend is downward, and there may be new pressures to trim further. The Christie administration this month suggested loosening the requirement that all districts have their own media specialists, as part of a sweeping report aimed at reducing school regulations.

State law now requires every school to have a library/media program, and every district to staff those programs. "But how that is all defined, that is the question," Massey said.

The state previously required full-time positions for every school in the neediest districts, which came under the Abbott v. Burke school-equity court rulings, but that fell by the wayside with the state's new funding formula. State monitoring still gives districts points for the strength of their library programs, but the administration's recent proposal suggested the possibility whole districts might now share staff.

Schools have had difficulty balancing their budgets for the last few years, especially given the widespread state aid cuts in 2010.

In the Freehold Regional High School District, the number of media specialists went from seven three years ago - one for each of the six high schools, plus a roaming one - to three. Each librarian is shared between two high schools.

"Once something is gone, they don't often come back, and we are living with three," said Charles Sampson, the Freehold superintendent. "It's a decision of where you deploy your resources."

Read more of John Mooney's education stories at www.njspotlight.com

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