California School District to Close Libraries; Hopes Pinned on New Tax

Article excerpt

The board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, California, voted 5-1 March 8 to close all of its libraries as part of a draconian budget overhaul to save $16.5 million and avoid bankruptcy next fall. Nineteen library assistants and 12 librarians are slated to lose their jobs. The board also voted to eliminate all high-school sports, elementary music programs, the school radio station, and 10% of the district's employees, among them psychologists, speech therapists, counselors, and some principals and custodians.

The lone dissenting vote came from the board's 17-year-old student representative Peter Chau, who refused to vote for any of the reductions. "It's immoral to even be thinking about cutting our libraries, our counselors," Chau said in the March 10 San Francisco Chronicle.

The decision was the direct result of the March 2 failure of Measure J, a parcel tax that would have raised $7.5 million annually for the beleaguered school district. The tax fell just 4% short of the two-thirds majority required for approval.

As school board member Glen Price explained, "We have not just flat revenues, but declining revenues" based on a predicted drop-off in enrollment that may cost the district $3.9 million next year. Making matters more drastic, the schools are also paying $1.8 million annually to the state to pay off debt on a decade-old bankruptcy bailout.

News of the cuts sparked a two-day walkout by students at the district's six high schools. "We have the right to protest the cuts because we're the ones being educated in the schools," De Anza High School 10th-grader Ana Salguera said in the March 10 Contra Costa Times. "We're the future of this country and we shouldn't have to do without counselors, sports, or libraries."

The cuts have demoralized the schools' librarians. "When I saw it on the news, it was gut-wrenching," said Richmond High Assistant Librarian Janice Guillen, a 23-year veteran of the district. "It took the four years after 1991 [when the district was bailed out by the state] to restore the libraries. This is the training ground for students going to college. We teach them how to do research. They can't close it down."

"Many of our children don't have access to the public library," Lovonya DeJean Middle School Librarian Grace Murphy Jenkins said in the March 12 Chronicle. "They need to know literature can be an enjoyable activity, that there's a joy to learning. This library is the best way to show them that."

New tax could add some funding

Four days after its vote, the school board agreed to place an $8-million parcel tax on a special June 8 ballot to help make up the loss. …