Come On, DC: Save Our School Librarians!

[Ed. Note: The following editorial, to save legislation that would ensure all DCPS schools have librarians henceforward, is by long-time DCPS libraries activist Peter MacPherson.]

By Peter MacPherson

For reasons that cannot sustain even modest scrutiny, DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson has shown no interest in helping DCPS school librarians. 

Worse, he is actively preventing other council members from helping them. 

Specifically, the DC council has legislation before it that would require DCPS to have a librarian in all schools. The bill was co-sponsored by a majority of council members, ironically one of whom is Mendelson. But he has signaled that he’ll use his position as council chair to block bringing the legislation to a vote. 

It seems Mendelson has something in for school librarians. Consider that last year, when the council voted to fund librarians for all DCPS facilities for this school year (as a budget amendment), it passed almost unanimously. Mendelson didn’t vote against it–but rather merely voted present.

Yet at the teacher retention hearing on October 25, Mendelson appeared willing to conflate a representation made to him by DCPS chancellor Lewis Ferebee, about Ferebee’s commitment to funding school librarians next year, with a long-term commitment to these positions. Mendelson also asserted that his bill to reform DCPS budgeting practices would ensure that librarians would continue to be a presence in DCPS schools–despite later in the same hearing conceding that DCPS would probably be able to find a way to work around it.

In point of fact, Mendelson’s bill does nothing to ensure any staff member is present in any DCPS school—much less librarians. In a video from the hearing, showing Mendelson discussing this with Jefferson Academy librarian K.C. Boyd, Boyd accurately noted that if librarians are not specifically funded in every budget, they will disappear from many schools.

In fact, that situation is longstanding and was what led to the budget amendment last summer, to provide for DCPS librarians in all schools this school year. Now, by refusing to move legislation that would memorialize librarians going forward in all DCPS schools, the council chair is prepared to leave DCPS librarians as vulnerable as ever. 

Simply put, school librarians have not had a political patron within DC’s municipal hierarchy to make it difficult and unpleasant to mess with them. I know, because since 2012 I’ve led or been a part of advocacy campaigns on behalf of DCPS school librarians.

In the past decade, as school librarians were moved against repeatedly by DCPS, the absence of a municipal school library patron has meant that community members and stakeholders have had to marshal support just to ensure their schools would have librarians. 

Anyone who has done any kind of advocacy knows that standing outside power’s inner circle and trying to alter municipal policy requires enormous effort. It requires the ability to show that the public is broadly with you and that political actors will face consequences for not bending to your will.

Because of widespread public support, campaigns to save DCPS librarians that DCPS wanted to eliminate have been successful. Twice in the past decade, school system leadership gave principals the latitude to not have librarians and use those personnel funds for other purposes. Twice, advocacy campaigns have led to the restoration of librarians at all DCPS campuses. 

But now I fear that this success will not always be the case, because at no point has senior leadership within DCPS undergone a conversion experience about school librarians. The victories have been ephemeral in nature.

Consider that in the past decade five people—Kaya Henderson, John Davis, Antwan Wilson, Amanda Alexander, and Lewis Ferebee–have served as chancellor of DCPS. During that time, I’ve never heard one of them publicly make an argument that questions the value of school librarians and cites evidence, such as academic research. 

What I have seen instead is a persistent willingness to give school principals the flexibility to sack librarians and use the funds intended for them for other purposes.

Going into the years ahead, more of these periodic, but consistent, skirmishes over the fate of the librarians will ultimately produce the least-appealing outcome, which is that librarians will eventually disappear from DCPS. 

The reasons for that are before us right now. Viewed from the outside, DCPS is far from the most appealing employer for a school librarian. The system’s lack of commitment to its librarians is well known nationally, and open positions are hard to fill. Having access to the best librarian candidates is harder still. The current corps of librarians in DCPS have largely been hired on a provisional basis, meaning they’re in process of becoming fully credentialed and have limited experience.

As it is, the need for never-ending advocacy on behalf of DCPS librarians is unsustainable, because consistent volunteer-based advocacy is hard to sustain successfully over a long term, especially in the face of constant pressures in other areas in our schools.

So here we are: 

We have a mechanism that can easily be made available to ensure that librarians are always present in all DCPS schools. Legislation to do just that has been introduced in the council, with 8 co-sponsors out of a body of 13. It had a hearing nearly a year ago. 

We are now fighting a deadline of the end of 2022 before this bill dies on the vine. It is far past time for this bill to come to a vote—and for DC taxpayers to recognize that this is a completely unacceptable situation, where one person is imposing his will on everyone. 

We all know that DC is one of the most democracy-impaired places in our country. Not bringing something to a vote is a technique favored by autocrats. Mendelson is free to not vote for the librarian legislation if he chooses. 

But it is unconscionable for him to supplant his will for that of a majority of the council. Should the chairman refuse to schedule a vote, his colleagues should use the council’s procedural mechanisms that they have available to force a vote.

2 thoughts on “Come On, DC: Save Our School Librarians!

  1. Thanks very much for this compelling case for the Council majority to stand up for itself, and us, by forcing the Council Chair to schedule a vote on Bill 23-443 before the end of this session.
    The statement toward the end, “We all know that DC is one of the most democracy-impaired places in the country.” says it all for me in terms of what most needs to be advocated for: curing the impairment of democracy inflicted on the body politic in 2007 when the then mayor and Council snatched away our right under the Home Rule Charter to vote for elected members of the former Board of Education for DCPS.
    Until that problem is solved any gains that advocates make will always be at risk for being lost in the next budget so that DCPS can never make any true, sustained progress in educating the public’s children as they they need to be and will continue to grow up wrongly learning by example that the kind of “mayoral control” that DC has had for the past fifteen years is normal in a democracy.


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