After hearing the concerns of parents, teachers and students regarding the lack of a full-time librarian at Gorton Junior High School, which was eliminated in the summer due to budget cuts, the School Committee considered reversing that decision at Tuesday night’s meeting but ultimately the motion failed.
The vote came before an unusually packed Toll Gate auditorium. As a harbinger of the debate to come, many of those in attendance believed the committee would consider a proposal to convert Vets High School into a junior high and close Gorton and Aldrich Junior High Schools in response to declining enrollments. No dates for those hearings have been set, although it is thought a schedule may be discussed when the committee studying school consolidation meets tomorrow.
The reduction in library staffing surfaced with the retirement of the Gorton library media specialist last year. At that time, the School Committee opted not to fill the position, instead implementing a shared system where the two remaining library media specialists at Aldrich and Winman split their time between Gorton and their home school; spending four days a week at their home school and two days a week at Gorton, leaving each junior high without a library media specialist two days out of the week. This means that a library has coverage from a library media specialist 66.6 percent of the time, while a library clerk covers the remaining 33.4 percent to allow kids to enter the library and use resources but not check out books.
Committee member Eugene Nadeau, who has fought to get the position reinstated ever since it was cut, made a motion to have a full-time librarian at each junior high school as soon as possible, effectively restoring the Gorton position. The motion was seconded and a brief discussion followed but the motion was defeated 3-2, with Nadeau and Karen Bachus voting in favor to restore the position.
Prior to the vote, Jennifer Ahearn explained why, although she understood the importance of a full-time librarian at each junior high, she could not support the decision to reinstate the position unless it was for a limited term.
“I received a number of emails and calls from parents and teachers regarding the 60 percent librarian decision and I can tell you that I would not approve a full-time position at this time,” she said.
Ahearn said it didn’t make sense to spend the money and time to go through the interview and hiring process to find a candidate, which could take until January or February, to only then turn around and eliminate the position at the end of the year and have to take on unemployment costs, in addition to the other costs associated with the hiring process.
“I would support a position through the remainder of this [school] year, but we would need union agreement and cooperation to accomplish this,” she said. “If this cannot be accomplished, I would like to see the savings be used to provide the libraries with 21st century technology, which could help reduce the workload on the clerical staff.”
Nadeau said it was important to staff the librarian position at all three junior high schools to benefit students.
“We need [union] approval for the next seven months of the school year to benefit the 1,500 students and teachers in our schools,” he said, echoing Ahearn.
Mary Tow, librarian media specialist at Winman, thanked Nadeau and Bachus for “putting kids before contracts and other issues.”
“Libraries with automated checkout have librarians on staff to assist patrons,” she said. “I’ve assisted many students who didn’t like to read until they found the right books.”
Sandra Savella, library media specialist at Aldrich, said she spoke with professors at the University of Rhode Island about the availability of a librarian candidate should the position get reinstated.
“You could hire a new librarian from URI in two weeks, not two months,” she said. “A machine can’t teach Internet safety and proper research methods. This decision was not based on the students’ best interests. It’s shocking to everyone and I’m very disappointed.”
Tracey McDermott, a member of the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) Executive Board and a parent of former students in the Warwick school system, wasn’t happy with the decision and wanted clarification about the library clerks.
“I’m frustrated and saddened that we can’t get three people up there to vote for a full-time librarian for the students,” she said. “It’s absurd to me and it should anger every parent.”
McDermott said years ago libraries not only had full-time librarians, but also full-time library clerks.
“The library clerk positions were eliminated six years ago, so if you have full-time clerks working in the libraries, that’s a breach of our [WISE] contract. That position needs to be advertised and posted for 60 days,” she said.
Darlene Netcoh, English teacher and department head at Toll Gate, was also not pleased with the decision.
“It’s disgraceful that the committee took $120,000 and used it to create a district evaluation position instead of reinstating the [Gorton] librarian position,” she said. “You said you would restore positions cut from the budget with surplus money in order of priority, but obviously that wasn’t true.”
Tarin Byrne, Aldrich PTA president, said not all families are fortunate enough to have a local library in their community to use now that the school libraries have limited availability.
“I live in a neighborhood where I’m lucky to have a local public library, but others don’t have that opportunity,” she said. “Libraries at the schools are a resource for students that are being taken away once a week.”
A concerned parent asked if students would have to endure two years without a full-time library media specialist in the event all three junior highs remain open next school year.
“It’s simply not fair to the students to give them two years without a librarian,” said David Testa, another concerned parent. “If we don’t value a librarian, I think that’s an embarrassment as a district. It’s a completely boneheaded decision.”
City Council President Donna Travis said she attended the meeting specifically to hear about the librarian position.
“I’m very disappointed,” she said. “How can you say no to something that’s so needed?”
Although his motion was defeated, Nadeau thanked everyone who shared their concerns over the librarian issue with him.
“It warmed my heart and I wish I could have warmed yours accordingly,” he said. “It was wonderful to see that parents and students care about their schools. I’m sorry that I wasn’t strong enough to convey the success of ALAP [Accelerated Learning Activities Program] and the full-time librarian at Gorton; my sincere appreciation to all of you.”
In other action, the committee approved updates to the health and senior high physical education curriculum, adding CPR and AED certifications to the 10th grade health curriculum and adding six physical education one-semester elective courses, such as Yoga, outdoor activities, and history of sports, among others, that count toward a student’s GPA as part of the senior high physical education curriculum.
The committee also approved a $10,600 contract award for 13 styling stations in order to complete the cosmetology program at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center. Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci reassured the money for the purchase was already contained in the Career and Tech Center’s equipment budget as well as in the Perkins Grant.