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Originally published June 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 24, 2009 at 11:04 AM

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Reassigned school librarians get attention beyond Bellevue

The Bellevue School District is reassigning librarians at four of the district's middle schools, four high schools and one 6-12 school to classrooms for the next school year. But many parents say the decision is not well thought out.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

To some Bellevue parents, it's hard to believe that all five of the city's high schools made it onto Newsweek's list of 100 best schools in the U.S. — and all five are about to lose their school librarians.

The issue has gained national attention in library circles. The dean of the University of Washington's library department has spoken out against the move. And about 100 Bellevue parents have decried the loss of the librarians at board meetings, and started a Web site, to try to push for a change.

For parents in this literate, well-educated community, a good librarian seems so fundamental to a top-performing school that axing the positions is unthinkable.

"You're not going to have a librarian? I can't fathom it," said Michelle Robertson, the parent of a student at Tillicum Middle School.

But the School Board has been equally adamant that moving librarians into the classroom is the best way to keep high-school class sizes from mushrooming.

The decision was made by each one of the school principals, said School Board President Chris Marks, and the board does not intend to overrule them because "principals really ought to know what the actual needs are, and serve them the best," she said.

Like all public-school districts throughout the state, Bellevue is scrambling to make up a cut in state money after the Washington Legislature trimmed $800 million from K-12 funding for the 2009-10 school year. Bellevue will lose $5.5 million next year, which is about a 3.4 percent reduction in its general-fund budget.

Librarians at four of the district's middle schools, four high schools and one school that spans grades 6-12 are being reassigned to classrooms for the next school year. The move saves about $500,000 and helps keep class sizes smaller. Even with the change, some core-subject classes may have well over 30 students next year, Marks said.

Not suited, some say

Bellevue appears to be one of the few districts in the state that is eliminating secondary-school librarian jobs to save money. (The libraries won't close, but they probably will be staffed by an employee with lesser training, such as a library assistant.)

The situation has drawn attention from both the American Library Association and the School Library Journal Web sites, which have posted stories on the issue.

And Michael Eisenberg, dean emeritus and professor of the University of Washington's Information School, questioned the decision at a School Board meeting.

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Some of the librarians say they're not suited for the positions they're being asked to fill. Sandy Livingston, who has been in the Sammamish High School library for nine years, was asked to teach a video-production class. Instead, Livingston, who is 65, plans to take a leave of absence and then most likely retire a year earlier than she had intended.

"The district keeps saying they're sending us to the classroom," she said. "We don't necessarily fit in the classroom."

Debbie McLeod, who runs the libraries at Highland and Odle middle schools, says she's been asked to teach language arts at Chinook Middle School. McLeod says she's been a librarian for 32 years and has never taught in a classroom. "It's a misuse of my ability, knowledge and training," she said.

Parents say the situation also raises several broader issues: why budget information isn't readily available on the district's Web site; why the district can't come up with an alternative to cutting all of the librarian positions; and why it can't explain the decision-making process that led to the librarian cuts.

Board President Marks defended the public process, and said the district Web site contains a PowerPoint slide show about the budget cuts.

A common criticism of the Bellevue district, Marks said, is that it is too top-down in its administration of schools. But in this case, the opposite is true; by allowing principals to decide how to use their staff dollars next year, the district is allowing each school to tailor its staffing to that school's needs. "Building administrators are in touch with their student population, and know what the needs are," she said.

She noted that one middle school, Chinook, has done without a librarian for 10 years.

'No public process'

Jeani Littrell-Kwik, a parent and substitute King County librarian who is leading the battle to get the librarians reinstated, said she and others wanted a chance to have input on the decision. "There was no public process, and there still isn't," she said.

Littrell-Kwik and others say they wish Bellevue had used a process like neighboring Lake Washington School District, which held several large public meetings and conducted an online survey, to help decide where the cuts would be made. Marks says it's difficult to compare districts, though, because "none of these districts line up exactly the same way."

Livingston, the Sammamish librarian, echoed UW professor Eisenberg's analysis: that a library without a librarian is just a depository of books. Among other things, school librarians help guide students to credible sources of information on the Internet, and teach them how to decide if a source they've found online is legitimate or not.

They're also in tune with students' reading habits, and know which books resonate with kids at every age and ability. For example, Livingston said, she's built a collection of short graphic books, called manga, that appeal to many high-school students who are too busy to sit down and read a novel.

For Marks, the bottom line is that the principals are in the best position to decide how to deploy their staff. "We really expect that principals are much better at making these kinds of decisions," she said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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