Books and Band-Aids: The Price of Cuts on Great Falls Public School Libraries

By Jamie Marshall

It is the loss of relationships associated with more than a decade of cuts in the Great Falls Public School District (GFPS) that has caused me to stop and reflect as a parent.

boy hugging woman during daytime
Am I seeing that people are hurting? Are we asking schools to put band-aids on things that need a deeper level of attention? Are there some divides? Are things gone that once were there?

For me, the answer is a resounding YES.

boy wearing gray vest and pink dress shirt holding book

A cut is something that is typically associated with pain. It may even bleed and require a band-aid or stitches. When scissors make a cut, they split an item into pieces or remove it altogether.

When schools make cuts, the results are the same. Only, the pain is associated with the loss of people who once filled positions that are now gone.

person cutting piece of paper

The splits are divisions that arise when positions are lost and workloads increase. This causes people to be spread too thin and feels overwhelmed as they continue to do more with less.

Yes, the relationships, support, unique programs, and expanded opportunities that existed for students – once cut, will not likely return.

grayscale photo of boy and girl reading newspaper

Our family has had at least one child attending public school for the past five years. Our children have established strong relationships with peers and adults; academically, they have been challenged to excel through the strong support of teachers who differentiate classroom learning and provide unique and expanded learning models.

photography of person holding book

But over the past five years, I have noticed differences. The first was in the library. The room in the school that houses the iconic symbol of learning across the ages – books.

Within Great Falls Public Schools, there have been 7.5 full-time library positions cut over the past decade, and all elementary library aide positions have been eliminated.

woman writing on book

What led me to notice a difference in the library is the effect of the supportive relationship our oldest child has with the school librarian/teacher. (To clarify, all librarians in Great Falls Public Schools are first and foremost trained teachers as required by state statute).

books over green trolley bin

In Kindergarten, our oldest received library classroom instruction both in the weekly allocated library time and additionally in a differentiated reading group led by this librarian multiple days a week.

Over the next two years, this librarian continued to lead differentiated reading groups with our child, significantly strengthening the rapport our child, and others had with this caring adult.

Most librarians across the district have additional responsibilities assigned to them, such as teaching reading groups, due to lack of staffing.

These responsibilities are in addition to teaching library classes and running a successful library.

flat lay photography of woman sitting on brown wooden parquet flooring surrounded by books

It’s a unique gift that librarians in all schools offer our children; they remain in the same position year after year, getting to know our students over the duration of their school career. As one elementary librarian from GFPS stated: “I love that I can watch the kids grow from Kindergarten thru 6th grade.”

Decades of research support that an effective librarian present in schools increases test scores and academic performances across socioeconomic levels.1

person holding string lights on opened book

Librarians in GFPS fill many critical roles well beyond just finding a book.

Summarizing the work performed daily, some librarians in the district taught me that “we are the stewards of the amount of exposure to books for children” …. But we don’t just do books – we teach students how to navigate technology, about digital citizenship, how to use the wealth of information available in books and online, and we teach them how to be safe with it.”

man standing near woman smiling

The amount of technology and digital learning librarians provide in schools is profound.

As our next two children entered the school system,

I naively anticipated their experience with the librarian would be the same. Sadly, it was not.

close-up photo of human eye with tear drops

Budget cuts have not only significantly decreased the budgets to purchase books but have also forced the elimination of library aides and support staff. Librarians – trained teachers – now have increased demand for the completion of clerical tasks.

woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime

About a year ago, even our oldest child started making comments that things were different. She felt she no longer had as much time with the librarian she admired and looked for in the hallways. It made enough of an impact that over the course of a few months, she repeatedly asked what might be different.

grayscale photo of woman wearing collared shirt

Yes, our students are also feeling the cuts.

This led me to start asking questions. I began to hear more about how cuts are impacting our teachers and students. I learned that the negative outcomes of cuts are touching every school and building in the GFPS system.

empty building hallway

One of the elementary librarians in the district stated: “A library is so much more than a room with a bookshelf. It is a place that allows for the personal touch.”

Another librarian beautifully described a student’s educational experience as a play production – and the librarian “is a stagehand in the background, setting the stage for children to access books and technology as part of the grand production.”

view of floating open book from stacked books in library

A different librarian noted: “There are so few places where kids get a free choice – where they get what they are interested in. They can in the library. This lends itself to differentiation. And we can provide this to kids.”

So, yes, with the cuts that have occurred, many librarians are finding that providing individual attention and strengthening personal relationships is now increasingly difficult to achieve.

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One librarian in the district noted that “the dam is leaking, and I don’t have enough hands to plug all of the holes. I try hard to provide customer service for all – the students and staff in my building, parents, teacher-specific requests, it’s difficult to balance it all.”

Another librarian shared that with larger classroom sizes and increased demands: “My conversations with kids used to be different. After my library instruction, now I am just checking out books instead of having as many conversations with students about books they might be interested in.”

photo of two person walking during daytime

And yet another librarian noted:

“I don’t get to talk with kids as much on a personal level because I have more to do than ever before.”

When we look at the research of how librarians are best able to support improved academic achievement, it is attributed to the unique relationships formed with students.1

shallow focus photography of books

Due to funding cuts, this has become more difficult for librarians to accomplish. These are missed opportunities for students. We need to fully fund the school district in our community and do what we can to as citizens to lessen cuts.

person showing both hands with make a change note and coins

I know our children are receiving an excellent education. And I attribute so much of that to the relationships they have daily with qualified and compassionate teachers and staff.

Every child has a different story and person they connect with.

three men laughing while looking in the laptop inside room

For some, it’s the engineer, or the 1st-grade teacher, or the 10th-grade math teacher, or the crossing guard. For our oldest, it is the librarian.

boy sitting on bench while holding a book

Have you noted how cuts might have impacted the school person your child feels best supported by? I’ve learned it’s a question worth asking.

As schools are forced to increase class sizes with fewer teacher positions, eliminate programs and support staff due to budget cuts, and thus ask teachers to do more with less year after year, we as a community are decreasing the time and relationships these role models, caring adults and compassionate mentors have with our students – our children, grandchildren and future leaders.

club master eyeglasses on pile of three books

These are cuts that hurt for the long term, are certainly not patched with a band-aid, and likely cannot be replaced once gone.