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Stratford Public Schools may lose all remaining librarian positions

Elementary school student searching for a particular book. A budget proposal that may be taken up by mid-March could eliminate all librarians in Stratford public schools.
Bradley Hebdon
E+ via Getty Images
Elementary school student searching for a particular book. A budget proposal that may be taken up by mid-March could eliminate all librarians in Stratford public schools.

Sara Hsiang is the librarian at Stratford High School, constantly helping students with media literacy, tutoring and also, checking out books.

But her future as a librarian may be in doubt. That’s because of a budget proposal that may be taken up by mid-March, which could eliminate all remaining school librarians in the district.

Hsiang said if the cuts are approved as part of the city’s annual budget, that would hurt students.

“The library is a refuge and a shelter for so many students — even before COVID — with our mental health needs, with our social emotional needs,” Hsiang said.

Hsiang attended a recent Board of Education meeting at her high school’s auditorium on Wednesday. The BOE voted 4-3 to pass their budget proposal to the town council and Mayor Laura Hoydick.

Michael Henrick, chair of the school board, said the cuts are based on making up for budget shortfalls.

“We need to be fiscally responsible," Henrick said. "We are also not only responsible to students — for providing a quality education — we're also responsible for the taxpayers.”

But Hsiang and others say the cuts, which would replace them with tutors, would have a damaging and long-lasting impact on the school district.

Overall, the Board of Education’s recommended $129 million budget would eliminate two high school librarians and seven elementary school librarians. It also would cut other positions including administrative roles like assistant principals.

Stratford has eight elementary schools, but two of them share one librarian, so the cuts would eliminate all librarian positions.

Middle schools in the district did away with library positions in 2018, Hsiang said. Since then, they’ve made do with tutors, many of which are routinely pulled to be substitute teachers.

The results, she said, have not been good.

“Since the middle school library media specialists left, the circulation of books are a third of what they were previously,” Hsiang said.

Hsiang attended the recent BOE meeting along with several of her colleagues who work at other schools throughout the district. The meeting was spirited, with other staff members shouting down Henrick at times during the meeting.

Christina Coutinho, a librarian at Eli Whitney Elementary School in Strartford, said librarians in the district are not only teaching students concepts, but sometimes, how to even use a computer.

“We are the only formal technology education that the students get. And teachers as well,” Coutinho said.

But while the librarians at the event criticized the proposed cuts, none of them said the cuts are rooted in anything other than penny pinching. The town’s Board of Education is controlled by Republicans, and other Republican controlled boards in Connecticut have attacked school libraries for perceived cultural grievances, many of which have spread false or misleading claims about teaching materials. That’s not what’s going on in Stratford.

But the cuts, which would be made up with tutors, according to Board member Lisa Carroll Fabian, a Democrat who voted against the proposal, and high school teacher in Fairfield, were made without input from the district.

“Certain committee members appeared focused on significantly reducing the proposed budget without fully considering the consequences,” Carroll-Fabian said.

While local officials and teachers condemned the proposal, removing librarians is unusual according to Francis Kennedy, the associate director for Accreditation and School Improvement at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

“It's not common. It's not unheard of, but it is quite rare actually in the state of Connecticut,” Kennedy said.

Rebecca Anderson, the librarian at Nichols Elementary School, said even nearby Bridgeport was able to keep its librarians.

Kennedy was also a school librarian and later, a principal at Stafford and Berlin. He said schools across the state are feeling budget pressures as a result of grant funds ending. He cautioned he didn’t know too well the budget issues in Stratford, but said districts in general face issues from construction costs, to medical insurance necessitating cuts.

Henrick, the head of Stratford’s school board, pushed back on criticisms about the budget by saying there is no other recourse as the district lost a key federal funding source, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) grants.

“We are faced with a stark reality that our ESSER grants are gone, we must address that issue,” Henrick said. “And that has had a huge impact on how we've had to do our budgeting this year.”

Hsiang may be safe, because she is also a certified social studies teacher. She can potentially move into a classroom teaching position if there’s space available.

But others, like Anderson, who has worked at the district for 20 years, will not be as lucky.

“I will be out of a job,” she said.

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