« Short Guide to Computer Security | Main | Other Side of Plagiarism »

Whose Voices?

Most of my Head for the Edge columns, updated and edited, can be found in my latest book. Buy it and I might be able to afford a nicer nursing home one day. Thank you.

Whose Voices Are Most Powerful?
Head for the Edge, Library Media Connection, November 2005

Not every story has a happy ending and I’m afraid this is one of them. But even sad tales can be instructive.

I received a call early last summer from a library media specialist in a small, near-by district; let’s call it Left Overshoe Independent Schools. She asked if I, as a representative of the state library association, would speak to Left Overshoe’s school board arguing against her district’s budget reduction plan since it included cutting half a media specialist position. I agreed to do this and developed a short multimedia presentation with persuasive research findings, heart-warming anecdotes, and lots of photos of happy, library-usin’ students. On that lovely June evening of the board meeting, I was well prepared and felt optimistic as I hopped in the pickup truck and drove south.

The Left Overshoe board meeting was an interesting experience. The superintendent, who did not seem terribly pleased to see me, insisted that I not use the PowerPoint presentation. “The board can’t handle it,” he said. Only 4 of the 6 board members were there even though (or maybe because) budget reductions were on the agenda. The district’s two librarians whose positions were not threatened were there in solidarity. The rest of our small gathering included the head of maintenance and a couple principals.

Anyway, I spoke for about ten minutes about the impact of good school library programs on student achievement, their impact on life-long learning and positive influence on school climate. The board members paid attention, laughed in the right places, expressed appreciation that I was willing to attend the meeting, related how much they all personally supported books and libraries, and bemoaned how difficult times were financially for the district. And went right ahead and voted to cut the library position.

Rather than being angry, I left the meeting feeling rather sorry for these citizen volunteers for the hard choices they had to make. Along with the media position cut, a school bus route was eliminated; a two-hour-a-day mentally handicapped man who did lunchroom duties was fired; the head custodian’s pay was reduced from twelve to ten dollars an hour; a vacant math position in the high school was not filled; and once again much-needed roof maintenance was delayed. When one of the board members asked why there were no “administrative cuts,” the principals reminded him that they had already absorbed the duties of the Title I coordinator, curriculum director, and standards coordinator without any additional compensation. Judging by the quality of his suit, the superintendent was not overpaid. None of the cuts were made without a good deal of thoughtful discussion and few votes were unanimous.

But it was one comment by a board member that really hit me hard and is why I am telling this story. He asked, “Why, if this library cut is going to have such a serious impact on our students, have I not received a single phone call from a teacher, parent or student objecting to it?” I thought it was an instructive question. Just a few teacher or parent voices (maybe only one) in support of the library position would have been far more persuasive than I could ever have hoped to be at that meeting.

There is an old literary term called deus ex machina, literally god from the machine. It’s a dramatic device used when the plot of a play became so hopelessly complicated with the hero facing such an impossible odds that the only way the playwright could create a happy ending was to literally use a piece of stage equipment to fly a “god” on to the stage who would magically set everything aright. The dragon was slain, the heroine brought back to life, the hero reconciled with this family.

If your district may be contemplating library media staffing cuts this coming year, let your state school library association know about the cuts and do so early. It may well already have a “crisis response” in place that will help you fight the cuts. But don’t rely on it for a deus ex machina ending.     

Today, start lining up the local teachers and parents who would be willing to testify to your board about the good things in your program and how cuts would be harmful to students. While the expert from more than 25 miles away will be listened to politely and the research acknowledged, the people board members have to live with on a daily basis will always have far more credibility and power.

And if you can’t find people who will speak against library cuts? Perhaps a critical assessment of your program is needed.

Voices must be raised when library programs are threatened by budget cuts. They just can’t all be ours.

Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2007 at 07:44PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>