The Oakland Unified School District board of trustees on Wednesday night reversed a decision to lay off the head librarian and instead allowed her to keep her job, less than a month after a 2 Investigates report about her pending removal.
Amy Cheney, who was asked not to speak publicly about the decision, will finish out the school year at 80 percent of her full-time position, which is four days a week. KTVU was the first to report in late December that the board planned to lay her off completely in the wake of the district’s $9-million mid-year budget cut saga.
But at the meeting, the board realized “in the haste of trying to make hard decisions, people realized that this position is very important,” trustee Shanthi Gonzales told KTVU Thursday morning. “Literacy, for me, is our biggest goal.”
Gonzales also told KTVU she spoke out of turn at the meeting because not all of the 40 to 50 employees in the district have been formally notified that they have been either laid off or given reduced hours. She didn’t want to say much more because it was unfair, she said, to single out one position above all the rest.
District spokesman John Sasaki said in an email that he would not describe this as a "change of heart, perse. We never wanted to eliminate the position and for quite a while, we had been working to find an alternative to that change." Yet, KTVU obtained a document in December showing that the district librarian's position was poised to be eliminated at a Jan. 17 board meeting.
The district announced in November that because of overspending made in previous years, trustees needed to make unwanted but necessary cuts to become financially solvent and prevent another state takeover. T
Gonzales and others credited the decision to keep the librarian's position instead of getting rid of it to KTVU’s reporting, as well as a large turnout of librarians who were also fearful and upset about their jobs possibly being axed. In terms of laying off other district employees, Gonzales said she didn’t have a lot of good choices, but had to make cuts to fix the budget problem.
She says there was a lot of “back- and-forth” over the original list of layoffs: The first list, she said, was “inequitable as it protected many high wage people.” The list that was approved on Wednesday was modified at least three or four times and is the best the board could do under the circumstances, she said.
Various stakeholders were pleased, albeit with some concerns, about the decision to keep the district librarian.
“I definitely think that the libraries cannot survive without some central coordination,” said Kari Hatch, executive director of the Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries, an organization that has been pouring hours and money into keeping the city’s public school libraries open and running as best as it can. “It's critical. There was a huge outcry when that position was poised to be cut. Library staff was very concerned. They felt their positions were also in jeopardy.”
Hatch added that the KTVU “publicity helped get the position back. A lot of people came out and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we didn’t know.’”
Still, despite the seemingly good news, Hatch said the underlying problem at Oakland school libraries remain: 30 percent of them are closed and even a greater number are not up to standards – a statistic KTVU’s 2 Investigates revealed last month.
“The problem isn’t gone,” Hatch said. “The funding isn’t there. There is still a void. It’s critical that these children do not have access to this resource. Libraries have been undervalued in the district.”
The funding isn’t there because the money from Measure G, the parcel tax that funds the school libraries, has not been streamlined or well-supervised, according to Hatch and Bradley Mart, chair of the Measure G Parcel Tax Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, as well as others.
In the last two years, Cheney had been working to smooth out that process, asking schools to write applications to get a portion of the $1.7 million allotted annually to the libraries, before the money would be approved.
At the board meeting, Mart encouraged trustees to divert nearly $5 million a year from the same Measure G parcel tax that is currently going toward class-size reduction and instead spend it on libraries. He said he wasn’t sure if the board would heed his suggestion, but he felt optimistic they the trustees were listening.
“I think they heard the hue and cry,” he said.