Pembina Trails’ plan to reassign librarians panned

Librarians are pushing back against the Pembina Trails School Division’s cost-cutting pitch to reassign their school-based colleagues to classrooms.

“The consequence of this is not just for the students, although that is our primary concern,” said Jo-Anne Gibson, a semi-retired teacher librarian from Winnipeg.

“It is also going to be the death of the Manitoba School Library Association. There are becoming fewer and fewer teacher librarians in this province at a time when we’re in a crisis of information in our world.”

Division administration unveiled a draft budget for the upcoming school year at a public board meeting held earlier in February, also known as I Love to Read Month.

In order to balance the books, trustees are considering a three per cent hike in local property taxes, increasing international student revenue and redeploying all junior high and Grade 9-12 teacher librarians to classrooms in 2024-25.

Representatives from the Manitoba Library Association and its sister organization of teacher librarians and school library technicians have written letters to trustees to plead their case.

Technicians oversee day-to-day operations in school libraries, including cataloguing and helping children sign out books. Teacher librarians are certified educators who support their colleagues’ curriculum delivery, source resources and deliver workshops on media literacy, fact-checking and deepfakes.

For Gibson, Pembina Trails’ proposal elicited a flashback to three years ago when an older iteration of the board considered eliminating high school teacher librarians and reducing these positions at the middle-year level.

Backlash led elected officials to decide to retain most of the specialized roles, which are often quarter- and part-time positions, in 2021.

There were about 23 full-time equivalent teacher librarian positions in the division in 2020-21. That figure is 19.5 (14 in elementary schools, 3.5 in middle schools and the remaining two are in high schools) this year.

As per newly released draft budget documents, the division’s priorities include decreasing K-8 class sizes, adding 58.5 teachers — a sum that takes into account the redeployment of teacher librarians — and offering summer programming to its youngest students.

“Why should the literacy of high school and middle school students be sacrificed for the literacy of younger students? It’s all important,” said Gibson, who has a master’s in curriculum and pedagogy from the University of Manitoba and a diploma in teacher-librarianship from the University of Alberta.

She warned that early literacy initiatives should not come at the expense of keeping older students reading and equipping them to be critical thinkers at a time when they are being overloaded with information online.

The career educator said she has spent much of the school year focused on teaching teenagers about deepfakes, fake news and misinformation, and discussing the dangers of growing calls to censor books.

Brandi Bartok, president of the school library association, called teacher librarians “a vital line of defence” in upholding inclusion policies via the curation of thoughtful collections and addressing book challenges.

“In an era characterized by the rapid proliferation of new technologies and an overwhelming deluge of misinformation, the decision to eliminate the frontline educators responsible for imparting skills in the ethical use of these tools and information sources is concerning,” Bartok wrote in a letter to Pembina Trails trustees last week.

While her association’s membership fluctuates, it is currently about 120. In 2012, there were upwards of 200 members.

In a bid to raise awareness about the value of fully serviced school libraries, the union for library technicians in Transcona schools (Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3873) has been running radio ads throughout the budget planning season.

“There are lots of schools now that only have a quarter-time library technician,” said Wendy Schultz, vice-president of CUPE 3873, noting that amounts to a total of one-and-a-half days of support during a six-day school cycle.

Elected officials in both Pembina Trails and River East Transcona are hosting public budget town halls in their respective divisions on Thursday.

Tim Johnson, chairman of the former’s board of trustees, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press