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November 23, 2017

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‘Quiet Crisis’: Are librarians in danger of being phased out of Las Vegas schools?

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Christopher DeVargas

Ryan Dwyer, a full-time teacher and certified CCSD librarian, assists a student in finding a book Friday, May 13, 2016, at Kay Carl Elementary School.

CCSD School Librarian

Ryan Dwyer, a full-time teacher and certified CCSD Librarian, teaches class at Kay Carl Elementary School, Friday May 13, 2016. Launch slideshow »

Ryan Dwyer’s fifth-grade students plop down at tables in the Kay Carl Elementary school library, fidgeting in their seats as he explains how to do research online for an upcoming project.

It looks like a scene that could be happening in virtually any elementary school, but there's a catch. Dwyer isn’t the students' full-time teacher. After class, he stays put as the teacher shows up at the door, organizes her class into a single-file line and shepherds them back to their classroom.

“They were really good today,” Dwyer calls after her.

Like hundreds of other full-time librarians in the Clark County School District, Dwyer is used to pulling double duty. When he’s not managing Kay Carl’s spacious, colorful library, he’s teaching the school’s students how to research, organize bibliographies and find information online.

It’s a crucial job in an increasingly digital world, but some say it’s in danger of disappearing.

For the past three years, more than 20 schools in Las Vegas have gone without full-time librarians. And while that may not seem like a large number, librarians around the Clark County School District are saying it’s part of a troubling trend.

In 2013, 24 libraries in CCSD schools were managed by someone other than a qualified librarian. In 2014 that number rose to 32. It has dropped slightly this year to 28, but Dwyer thinks the number will only continue to go up.

In an essay penned for the Clark County School Librarians Association, he calls it the “Quiet Crisis.”

“If you were to look at schools 10 years ago, every library had a certified librarian in it,” Dwyer said.

He blames the school district’s “flex” budgeting policy, which allows principals more leeway in deciding which positions to fill and which to leave vacant after staff departures. Principals often decide to replace their full-time librarian with a part-time volunteer or have another teacher pick up the slack. Faced with overcrowded classrooms or a lack of funds, principals often have hard choices to make about staffing — like replacing a librarian with a classroom teacher.

But the consequences of that can be far-reaching. The value of even a small elementary school library like Dwyer’s can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars in books and material that needs to be maintained, organized and updated.

“It’s one of those things that people just don’t think about,” Dwyer said. “People have the sense that all we do is check out books, but I have an aide who does that.”

What can’t be off-loaded to an assistant are things like book repair, which requires special training, and tasks like ordering and cataloguing.

“It’s not something that support staff is ever going to be able to do,” Dwyer added.

The solution, librarians claim, is more oversight by the district to keep principals from replacing library staff, but that might prove difficult.

For starters, the district’s flex budgeting policy is popular. A common criticism of CCSD is that too much power is wielded by the district’s central administration, but flex budgeting allows schools greater control over decision-making.

“Schools have the opportunity to determine what their needs are,” said Eva White, an academic manager with CCSD. “If they feel like they have to utilize their resources in a different way … they have the opportunity to make those decisions.”

“When money is tight, people prioritize differently,” she added.

Some schools are rethinking the entire concept of what a school library should be. Many have jumped on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education) bandwagon, which suggests that digital literacy should be prioritized.

Take Eldorado High School, which converted part of its library into a gaming area after the school started a magnet program in video game development.

”The rules of the library have changed,” White said. “Of course we want kids to have a print-rich environment. But to keep up with the times, they have to become more technological.”

To librarians like Dwyer, that’s a false dilemma. He says part of his job is helping kids learn how to use computers and technology to do their school work. He was instrumental in upgrading Kay Carl's technology, and every student in his class does his or her work on touchscreen tablets.

“Tech is the new shiny,” Dwyer said, contrasting it with Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky’s goal of boosting reading skills in elementary school.

“You’re going to have a hard time doing that if you systematically dismantle school libraries,” he added.

Still, the district is balking from imposing a “one-size-fits-all” approach on principals.

“Schools and their communities really need to [decide] what has to happen,” White said.

Every so often, Dwyer says he’ll visit a school and stop by the library. Most of the time, he’s happy with what he finds. Other times, he finds the bookshelves empty or unorganized.

“If the general public had a sense of how taxpayer dollars were being mismanaged, people would be outraged,” he said.

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