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A perfect storm is brewing in Texas that threatens one of the pillars of public school: campus librarians.

Rapidly tightening education budgets and simmering culture wars centered on book bans have put school librarians in the crosshairs in recent months. Three of Texas’ largest school districts — Houston, San Antonio and Spring Branch — have eliminated dozens of librarian positions since August 2023, with more cuts potentially on the way across the state.

As more school districts debate whether librarians remain a necessity or a no-longer-affordable luxury, here’s a primer on school librarians, the latest news on the position and the controversy surrounding the job.

What does a school librarian do?

No, librarians don’t just check out books.

Librarians are experts in information literacy, a term for the ability to locate information, analyze it and apply it. They collaborate with teachers to find the resources educators need to teach lessons, and they help students and teachers use technology to conduct research.

Our coverage of the school libraries

Librarians are also trained to curate collections of materials. They examine all the books and other informative resources held in the library, identify areas that could use more information and search for new resources. For example, a librarian may conduct a diversity audit to determine if they need more books with representation or information about a certain demographic.

In many districts, librarians analyze campus budgets, decide what new materials are needed, evaluate potential purchases and order new books for the libraries. 

What happens when librarians go away?

Districts that have cut librarians still have libraries, but they operate much differently.

Next year, Spring Branch’s libraries will be called “media centers,” run by lesser-trained, lower-paid “media center assistants.” District leaders have not detailed how the rebranded spaces will differ from a typical library, aside from the staffing changes. Spring Branch officials did not grant an interview request with any trustees this week.

According to a district job posting, Spring Branch’s media center assistants will help students check out books, keep the space clean and assist students in using technology for research. It is unclear who in the district will now develop collections or order new materials — tasks not included in the job description.

“If you have someone in there who's not trained to do those things, then you're really just checking in and checking out books at that point,” said Brooke King, chair of the Texas Association of School Libraries. “When you take that piece out, now all of that's going to fall onto the classroom teacher, as well as teaching the content area. That's going to be a burden on teachers, or the students are just not going to get instruction in those areas.”

In Houston ISD, campuses without librarians look much different. There are no employees tasked with running the libraries. The spaces have been repurposed, with some areas used for misbehaving students to work remotely and advanced students to study independently. Students take home books on an “honor system,” a change that has made it impossible to discern how many books students are checking out.

What’s the state of school librarians in Texas?

The number of librarians in Texas’ 9,000-plus schools has dipped slightly in recent years. State data shows Texas had about 4,250 full-time librarians in 2022-23 (down about 150 from 2018-19) and 650 part-time librarians (up about 75). Some schools assign teachers to carry out librarian-type duties on a part-time basis, and they might not be included in the state data.

Full-time librarians in Texas make an average salary of about $67,400, and 80 percent have a master’s degree, state data shows.

Why are some districts cutting librarians?

Spring Branch is cutting all of its librarians as part of a $35 million budget slash that affects roughly 260 employees in other positions. District leaders announced their plan to cut spending in October 2023, arguing it needed to move quickly in order to stave off the ramifications of rising inflation and the Legislature’s failure to increase public school funding.

District leaders have not offered an explanation of why they chose librarians or any other positions they are reducing, and none were made available for interview at the time of publication. (In an op-ed published Saturday in the Houston Chronicle, former Spring Branch superintendent Duncan Klussmann argued the district’s school board hasn’t managed its budget well and doesn’t need to cut so deeply given its healthy “rainy day” fund.)

Bryston King Powell, 7, and his mother, Patrece Wright, read a children’s book together as part of a “read-in” protest against the elimination of some Houston ISD school librarians Aug, 10, 2023, at district headquarters in northwest Houston. (Abdelraoufsinno file photo / Marie D. De Jesús)

In HISD, Superintendent Mike Miles has been more vocal about his reasoning. He argued that cutting some campus librarians freed up the resources to pay for higher salaries for teachers, including educators teaching students how to read.

“I don’t dispute that libraries are important or add value,” Miles said. “It’s not that I don’t like libraries. We’re not trying to get rid of all the librarians. We’re prioritizing resources.”

San Antonio ISD cut nearly 30 librarians to free up funds to increase teacher pay. Now, less than a third of the district’s schools have a librarian, while employees at other campuses have absorbed some of the job responsibilities.

Will more districts cut librarians?

HISD and Spring Branch have been outliers over the past year. HISD is overhauling dozens of campuses and dramatically shaking up the way the district operates. Spring Branch, meanwhile, has announced cuts earlier than many other districts, with its school board members making a pointed and public case for more state funding.

But other districts will likely have to make tough budget decisions soon. Texas lawmakers, armed with a $33 billion surplus, didn’t significantly increase state funding for public schools during the 2023 legislative session amid a stalemate over education vouchers. Federal COVID relief funds also are set to begin drying up later this year. At the same time, school district costs continue to rise, due in part to inflation.

Texas school districts must approve their 2024-25 budgets by the end of June or August, depending on their budgeting cycle.

How does book banning fit into the librarian debate?

Book banning debates have led to increased scrutiny of school libraries, but officials in HISD and Spring Branch have not linked the issue to their cuts.

HISD leaders have steered clear of book bans entirely, but the same is not true of Spring Branch, where trustees have waded deeper into culture war issues in recent years. Last year, trustees increased their authority over handling library book complaints, removing the step in the process that allowed educators and librarians to review the books. Superintendent Jennifer Blaine argued the task was taking precious time away from educators.

Other districts that have gripped headlines for book-banning controversies — such as Katy and Conroe — have not made major library staffing changes.

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Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A native Michigander, Miranda studied political science pre-law and journalism at Michigan State University....