New funding model could mean mass exodus of Oakland school librarians, closure of more libraries

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The Oakland Unified School District is changing the way it hands out money to school libraries, and in an ironic twist, the seemingly equal distribution of money to each school is seen by many critics as very inequitable, especially for schools in poor neighborhoods.

Many fear this will lead to the further exodus of school librarians in a district where at least 30 percent of its libraries are shuttered.

“I think this could be really bad,” said Cindy Gullikson, the librarian at Joaquin Miller Elementary School. “A disaster.”

Last week, OUSD Senior Deputy Chief of Continuous School Improvement Sondra Aguilera wrote to the district’s library staff, telling them that the $1.6-million earmarked for libraries from a bond, called Measure G, will now be distributed in a different way: Instead of handing out money on a need-based system, now each school will get $20,000 apiece.

District spokesman John Sasaki said the move was aligned with what the school board wants the district to do, which is to push more money out to sites rather than have it centrally controlled. He stressed: "Libraries play an important role for schools." 

Last year, 2 Investigates highlighted the fact that at least 30 percent of campuses  in the district, or 80 in all, did not have a school library. Gullikson said she believes that this new “flat-rate-for-all plan” will end up closing even more school libraries, and will disproportionately negatively affect low-income schools. 

The decision came out of the blue for most librarians, several of whom told KTVU that they had no input in this new funding distribution. 

30 percent of Oakland school libraries closed

More resources are sorely needed districtwide. Oakland Unified is facing a $30 million projected shortfall in the 2019-20 school year and has announced it will close up to 24 schools over the next five years to close funding gaps. As another example, the district said it was so cash-strapped, it couldn't afford to fund most of the sports teams this school year; private individuals and the Oakland Raiders stepped up to fill in the gaps to keep the teams afloat. 

The new form of distributing the money goes against the past practice of the last two years. Since about 2016, the Measure G Library Funding Committee, comprised of parents, state experts and the district librarian, Amy Cheney, chose intentionally not to spend the money equally at all the schools. Instead, the committee felt it was better to seek applications from schools and distribute the money in what they say is a more equitable manner: Give to those who need it most. The money was pooled and several new libraries were reopened at school sites after years of being closed. 

Under this model, schools in underprivileged areas that need more money, got more money.  And schools in more affluent areas got less because parents in these neighborhoods are able to raise money on their own for libraries through their PTAs. For example, the librarians at Hillcrest and Claremont middle schools, as well as Joaquin Miller and Chabot elementary schools, are paid for with private money raised by parents.

It costs anywhere from $70,000 to $110,000 a year to pay for a librarian or a librarian tech including health benefits and keep a school library open, according to librarian estimates. 

The situation now means that many librarians and librarian techs at low-income schools, armed with a maximum of $20,000, likely will be forced out of their posts. That amount, they say, isn’t enough for even a part-time salary. According to librarians, there might be as many as 30 employees affected.

PHOTOS: Oakland school libraries

“I’ll either have to go back to the classroom, which I don’t want to do,” said Samantha Solomon, the librarian at Life Academy Oakland and United For Success Academy, both schools in the Fruitvale neighborhood. “Or leave the district.” 

Plus, she said, the libraries at her schools, which were closed for nine years but reopened two years ago based on the previous funding model, will likely sit dormant with no librarian at their helm.

The same would be true for the library at Bret Harte Middle School on Coolidge Avenue, where more than 80 percent of the students get a free and reduced-price lunch, don’t have a wealthy PTA, and can’t sustain itself on $20,000 alone.  The library was closed for about three years but recently opened because the school got a greater influx of money to reopen it.

“All of that will be lost,” said librarian Lori Sasaki. “This will take us backwards. Libraries will close. This is a travesty.”

There is no public intention to fire any of the library staff. But the district did take into account that the funding model would not be sustainable for everyone. In her letter, Aguilera told the recipients of her email that “in the case that your site is not able to continue to fund the library staff position….we are committed to helping you find a placement that best leverages your talent and interest.”

Sasaki, who is not related to the district spokesman, said that she interpreted that letter to read: “I felt like they were saying, ‘Find a new job.’” 

When asked how that would affect librarian salaries since $20,000 isn't enough to live on, Sasaki, the district spokesman, said that's something the district is still working on. 

Gullikson, the librarian at a wealthier school, is circulating her own letter to the school board to show solidarity with her fellow librarians at lesser affluent campuses. She and others are asking that the spending formula for Measure G for this school year remain the same as it was for last school year.

“You may believe it is fair to give $20K to every school site, but in reality, it is neither equitable nor just,” her letter states. “For some of us, spending this money feels tainted.  Our good fortune directly results from the elimination of the positions of several our Measure G-funded colleagues, and the closure of libraries. These are colleagues that we collaborate with regularly. How could one site justify purchasing a bank of iMacs when that comes at the expense of our colleagues’ jobs and their libraries?”

KTVU's Cristina Rendon contributed to this report. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was corrected to explain that the $20,000 must be used on libraries.