I ask Craig Seasholes: Who’s to blame for throwing your profession under the bus? Tellingly even he doesn’t have a clear answer.
“That’s a big part of why we’re in this mess,” the Seattle school librarian says. “Too many culprits to really put your finger on it.”
We’re talking about the latest managerial fiasco in the public schools. This time it’s that the state has poured billions of new spending into education, and yet these same schools are in such a funding crisis that they’ve been forced to … go after the librarians.
The most extreme case is in Spokane, where last week the district said it’s getting rid of all its librarians, across all schools and grade levels.
Here in Seattle, the district has proposed slashing its full-time school librarians to 20 hours per week, in an effort to save $1.7 million in the budget.
My mom was a school librarian, at the high school and college level, so I’m hopelessly biased on this issue. People argue the internet has made librarians obsolete, but the way she saw her job was to help students learn to navigate ever-expanding streams of information. What’s solid info and what’s flimsy, and, most importantly, how can you tell?
That skill seems more crucial now than ever, no?
“Lakeside alone has five librarians, so somebody still seems to think we’re important,” Seasholes said of the Seattle private school.
Seasholes is the librarian at Dearborn Park elementary in Seattle, and is on the board of the Washington Library Association. He said librarians find themselves on the chopping block as a sort of twisted outcome of the yearslong fight to fully fund the public schools, known by its courtroom name as McCleary.
Parents sued, arguing the state had illegally neglected the schools. The parents won, effectively forcing state lawmakers to pour about $7 billion more into the K-12 system in the past five years, a nearly 50% boost in spending.
Included in that was a big hike in property taxes, especially in Seattle and Puget Sound districts.
The McCleary case is over, mission accomplished. The Seattle schools budget went from $752 million in 2017 to $989 million in 2019, a 31% boost.
Yet still we can’t afford librarians?
Seasholes said the problem is multifaceted. One is that while state lawmakers did give a big short-term money boost, by their inexplicable design it’s set to plummet next year (in Seattle, school revenue is expected to drop by $74 million next year due to a cap on local levies).
Second is that the teachers union threatened strikes in order to leverage double-digit pay boosts — raises it knew were unsustainable.
“We (the union) went in saying let’s grab all we can grab,” Seasholes says. “We knew it would contribute to these budget deficits, but we did it anyway, to try to put pressure on the state Legislature to make this funding permanent.”
Finally, school boards and administrators didn’t write sustainable budgets either, though it’s pretty much their main job.
I mostly cast my blame up the food chain, on state lawmakers, who crafted a roller-coaster plan of huge spending increases followed by immediate cuts in many districts, without imposing discipline on pay increases.
This is how “government is broken” crusades sometimes get traction. Because this has been an epic fail of political leadership across all levels.
The bottom line is they jacked property taxes by record amounts in some areas, and declared the problem fixed. Yet despite the seven billion dollars, instantly it feels as broken as ever, and in the same way as before.
That hardly fosters confidence — to the point it’s going to be a major political problem for education in this state going forward unless it somehow gets addressed.
Another personal note: At the end of my last column, I attached a brief note that my mom had had a stroke, and so I would be gone more than usual. Those two paragraphs generated the biggest response in 15 years of this column.
Readers sent about 2,000 emails with thoughts and best wishes for my mom. Some gave advice on strokes or on running the nursing home gauntlet. But most just expressed simple hope for her recovery.
I’m sad to report that Helen is now in hospice, and so is dying. But that so many Seattleites cared enough to root for her has been a wholly unexpected source of support.
I read some of the notes to my mom. I scrolled through the entire email in-tray for my dad, who is 89: “Best wishes for Helen,” “Sending positive vibes for your mom,” and so on.
“I am a complete stranger to you and your family,” one reader wrote. “But you are no stranger to ours.”
My dad teared up at it all.
“My God, man,” he said. “You are one lucky (bleep).”
That I am. And thanks, Seattle Times readers. Turns out I needed you for a great deal more than subscribing to the paper.