(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Imagine a newly modernized school with a built-in library/media center — but no books to put on the shelves. Actually, you don’t have to imagine.

Read about what’s going on with libraries in D.C. public schools (DCPS) in this open letter to Mayor Vincent Gray from D.C. resident and school library advocate Peter MacPherson. He’s been fighting a move by DCPS to cut funding for dozens of school librarian positions.

MacPherson’s letter:

Dear Mayor Gray:

The city has every right to take pride in the $62 million modernization of Anacostia High School. It represents an important commitment to one of our most disadvantage communities. When your office issued the press release about the ribbon-cutting, it noted the school received a new library/media center. Unfortunately what the school received was not a library but merely a room. The school opened without any library books. The old collection — both literally and figuratively — was lost during the modernization.

What’s even worse is that this is not an isolated incident. Last year when the new H.D. Woodson High School opened, most of its books were lost during the renovation, including a 3,000 volume collection donated by a DCPS central office staff member. It now has a 450-volume collection. For a school its size, that figure should be 10,000. And Eastern High School had part of its collection lost during construction.

It is not simply the repeated loss of valuable school assets that is so troubling, it also the fact that the chancellor has paid so little attention to school libraries that they could be allowed to open in this state. A quarter of a billion dollars and the chance for significant gains in student achievement have been put at risk with the absence of these core academic materials.

The results of a Freedom of Information Act request show that in FY11 and FY12, the money appropriated to DCPS for library and media services was overwhelmingly used for other things. It paid for other things like building repairs, maintenance to HVAC systems. More than $400,000 was used for testing. DCPS used $80,000 of these funds to pay for a San Francisco-based consultant to develop a strategic plan for its Office of Family and Community Engagement.

Your staff is correct in noting in the press release the importance of the new libraries the modernized schools are receiving. But the simple truth is that they simply aren’t getting them. In the case of Anacostia all it received was a room with a sign denoting “library” on the door.

For seven months the stakeholder community has been advocating aggressively on behalf of school libraries and librarians in the face of cuts made by the chancellor. City-wide the response to these cuts has been overwhelmingly negative. And this is shown in the sustained media coverage the issue has received. And it is going to continue with the advocacy for Councilman [Jack] Evans’ bill requiring a librarian in every school.

But the just announced budget surplus is the perfect opportunity for your administration to align itself with the broad public will on this issue.

We’d like your administration to take $23 million from the surplus and invest it in school libraries and librarians. This sum represents 16 percent of the total that has been reported. And what it will provide is staggering on numerous levels. It would enable us to put an appropriately-sized collection in every high and middle school and would bring the elementary and education campuses to a similar point. It would enable DCPS to ensure that every school has an average of 30 magazine subscriptions. It would provide all schools access to a 40,000 volume eBook collection and eReaders and computers so that all school libraries will have a similar technological footprint. It would provide $4 million to upgrade school libraries in a poor state of repair. And it would make possible the hiring of 57 full-time librarians. You tried to achieve this in 2010 while council chairman when you earmarked funds for technology upgrades at middle schools and education campuses. Somewhere along the line someone spent that money on something else as well.

The strategic plan “A Capital Commitment” has ambitious goals for the raising of student achievement, particularly in reading. Yet in the past five years DCPS has never missed an opportunity to miss opportunity to support a pedagogic tool that evidence has overwhelmingly demonstrated to significantly enhance student achievement. And I the evidence is there that the failure of DCPS to invest in libraries and librarians has partly responsible for the negligible improvement in reading scores in our city. And not investing in libraries and librarians shows an unwillingness to honor commitments she has already made relative to International Baccalaureate programs as those for the gifted and talented. “A Capital Commitment” also pledges the expansion of IB, gifted and talented and advanced placement programs. These truly are strategic goals that cannot possibly be achieved given the state of school libraries in the District of Columbia Public Schools.

This $23 million is a smart public investment that will benefit all parts of the city but particularly those that are the most disadvantage. And it will help secure the huge investment the city is making in school modernization. Schools without libraries are not attractive the overwhelming majority of parents. This is message the chancellor heard time and again during the “State of the Schools” meetings held during this past summer. The hole that school libraries are in is an extremely difficult one from which to extract them and I do not see how the chancellor would be able to invigorate them in the way required simply using the DCPS budget.

We’re hopeful that you’ll use the portion of the surplus we’ve outlined for the school libraries.


Peter MacPherson