In Philadelphia and Chicago, school librarians looked with dread as their positions were slashed. Now, librarians in the District are fighting to make sure the same fate does not befall them.

In 2019, the D.C. school system made a change that largely went unnoticed, allowing principals to request that money intended for librarians be used for other purposes.

Many school librarians are just learning about this change during the ongoing process to determine next year’s budget and fear that, when budgets get tight, librarians will be the first to go. They are calling on the school system to require every campus to have a librarian.

“We know the track record,” said Kenneth Nero Jr., librarian at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Northeast Washington. “When things get tight, they end up cutting librarians first.”

School librarians throughout the country have been fighting to recover from drastic cuts made during the Great Recession. In 2012, the D.C. public school system laid off dozens of librarians to balance its budget.

Now, 83 of the system’s 118 schools have full-time librarians, an increase since 2012. Schools with fewer than 300 students are assigned a part-time librarian.

In the charter sector, which educates nearly 50 percent of the city’s public school children, about half of campuses have libraries. Some are led by librarians and others by teachers who specialize in reading.

The traditional public school system’s chancellor, Lewis D. Ferebee, whose mother was a school librarian, said the funding for librarians does not represent a change from last year.

But he said school budgets look different. In an effort to be more transparent, he said he explicitly noted on budget documents that principals can request to use the money intended for librarians for another position.

Ferebee said initial budgets — which can be changed in the coming months as principals make requests — designate about $12 million to pay for school librarians. Nearly $1 million is slated to update school library collections.

Even if a school does not have a librarian, the school system requires every campus to have fully stocked libraries.

D.C. Public Schools “empowers schools to develop a budget that best meets the needs of their school community, which includes reviewing the flexibility provided within their allocation,” Ferebee wrote in a statement. “We recognize that guidance provided to schools in the past around these flexibilities was unclear and contradictory.”

Fear over the fate of the city’s school librarians — who are also known as media specialists — emerged this month during the initial review of school budgets for the next academic year.

While the overall education budget includes a 4 percent increase per student over the current year, teachers and education advocates say that rising personnel costs leave some schools cash-strapped, even with the increase in student expenditures.

And it’s not only rising personnel costs: Smaller schools are more expensive to operate and, with the opening of new cam­puses in the traditional public and charter sectors, the city has an increasing number of cam­puses with many vacant seats.

Nero’s position at Ron Brown Prep is expected to go from full time to part time because the school’s enrollment is projected to drop below 300 students. He said he builds important relationships with students, finding books for struggling readers he knows will interest them.

The debate over the funding of school librarians is nothing new, said Patrick Sweeney, national political director of EveryLibrary, an advocacy organization working with D.C. librarians.

School libraries experienced steep cuts — most acutely in schools that serve large populations of children from low-income families — following the 2008 recession, and Sweeney said advocates failed to properly convey the importance of these positions to the public. The number of school librarians is still declining nationally, according to Sweeney.

“The concern is always the elimination of librarians,” Sweeney said. “It’s not just about books. As librarians, we are specifically trained in navigating information structures and systems, and how to make sure they work, how to identify fake news, how to protect your identity.”

Librarian Lindsay Hall at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington said principals should not be put in the position of having to choose between a librarian and saving a teaching position.

“These are difficult decisions to make, and they are asked to make sacrifices that are unfair,” Hall said. “While principals should have discretion, are they able to see the value before they make that decision?”

The decline of school librarians across the country has K.C. Boyd, librarian at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Southwest Washington, worried — even though the District employs far more librarians in schools than other jurisdictions.

During a Chicago teachers strike in 2019, the union called on city leaders to employ librarians at every school. While the new teacher contract allocated more money to schools, American Libraries Magazine reported it is unclear how many more librarians that will yield.

Last month in Philadelphia, librarians rallied for more school librarians because so few schools employ them.

If a school system makes hiring a librarian optional, it’s only a matter of time before the jobs vanish districtwide, advocates say.

“This seems to open the door,” Boyd said, “for more petitions and waivers to cut school librarians.”