Just two years ago, the American Library Association honored Chicago Public Schools librarian Nora Wiltse with an award for her “courageous efforts” to raise awareness about the effects of district cuts to library and school media positions.
Now Wiltse says her own job is in jeopardy. She expects to receive a pink slip in the next week after 19 years as a CPS librarian, the last 14 at Coonley Elementary. The 900-student school in the North Center neighborhood is one of several in CPS that may cut positions because of budget constraints, even though the district is sitting on more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
CPS officials have repeatedly said every bit of this money will be spent, but they do not want to fund positions the district cannot afford after the coronavirus money expires in 2024 — especially as enrollment continues to decline systemwide.
A campaign to save Wiltse’s job continues in the meantime. An online petition demanding a “fully funded and staffed library” at Coonley has garnered nearly 500 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. Wiltse has been referenced in heated budget discussions at recent public meetings. Those who know her insist Coonley and its library program would suffer without her.
“She inspires a love for reading in her kids. I see them come to the library. They’ll talk about books or she’ll recommend a book. She knows what people are reading, and she reads the same things that the kids do so she can talk to them about it,” parent and library volunteer Michelle Blose told the Tribune.
“She just brings a lot to the Coonley community, and it would make me sad to see her not be there anymore.”
CPS released proposed budget figures for individual schools in March. These are the numbers used to determine staffing for the upcoming school year. Coonley’s budget for this school year is $7.32 million, according to CPS. The district proposed a $7.37 million budget for the next school year. The raw numbers don’t tell the whole story when you consider contractual raises, Wiltse said.
When Coonley’s Local School Council met in April, a budget presentation revealed three positions were on the chopping block for the next school year — a teacher, an enrichment position and a teacher assistant. The school would gain a counselor. Wiltse said her enrichment position is getting the ax.
The problem is Coonley’s enrollment declined the last two years, which has been blamed on the phasing out of the school’s regional gifted program, a measure taken to ease overcrowding. Coonley lost 89 students between the last school year and this one, according to data captured on the 20th day of instruction.
At the district’s monthly board meeting last week, Coonley’s LSC chairperson, Brooke Roark, expressed frustration with CPS’ budget allocation formula. Roark said in an email to the Tribune that Coonley’s LSC “is very concerned with the budget cuts impacting schools across the city. We have voiced these concerns to Chicago Public Schools and the mayor.”
Coonley’s principal did not immediately return a Tribune request for comment.
On May 19, CPS released new budget figures that showed every district-run school was on track to receive more money than what was announced in March. Coonley’s proposed budget was adjusted upward by $16,920. That same day, Chicago aldermen grilled CPS officials about budget concerns. Ald. Matt Martin, 47th, had a fiery exchange about Coonley with Charles Swirsky, senior adviser to CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.
“With Coonley and other schools, their enrollment was either going up or stabilizing until the pandemic hit, so we’re talking about a one- or two-year loss. And you and I have talked about it and (you) said, ‘Well, alderman, you can go door to door and talk with folks to either get those families to return or get new, young families to come,’ ” Martin said to Swirsky.
“And as I told you, it’s really hard to do that if I’m telling them you’re losing three instructional and support staff members, including one of the most talented and beloved librarians in our entire school system, who is constantly the subject — and rightly so — of local and national acclaim. That’s a really hard position that we’re in,” Martin said before raising the prospect of using unspent COVID-19 funds to keep Wiltse employed for at least one more year.
Swirsky shot back: “Again, the one-time funds have to last beyond the next school year also.”
CPS officials said the district has spent about 40% of the $2.8 billion federal COVID-19 funds it is expected to be reimbursed over five fiscal years. CPS’ overall budget for the coming school year is still being formulated. But officials said the budget is expected to include at least $600 million of the coronavirus money, which is set to expire in September 2024.
When discussing the budget, CPS stresses it has only 68% of the local and state resources it needs to be adequately funded. “I think we all would love for every child in this district to have five specials (such as art and music) and a fully stocked library and a librarian. And right now we don’t have the funds to do it because we’re being funded by 68%,” Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said at last week’s board meeting.
Wiltse said if her $97,780-a-year position is cut, she would have to find a school with a librarian position that’s willing to take her in her 20th year. Coonley, meanwhile, would be at risk of losing thousands of dollars of grant money earmarked for schools with staff librarians, she said. She estimates 33,000 books have been circulated this school year.
“When librarians have left (other schools), I have done analyses on what happens, and it’s just exactly what you would think. It just drops down to zero or drops down to like 100,” Wiltse said about circulation numbers. “So 33,000 books this year circulating. Next year, I don’t think any will circulate.”
Wiltse said each Coonley classroom comes to see her once a week. She has been focused on making reading as easy as possible for these kids after noticing a decline in reading habits during the pandemic. She also teaches information literacy, leads author discussions and encourages her students to write book reviews.
She said in her time with CPS, she’s seen 300 librarian positions cut and libraries turned into rooms for taking exams. She’s been outspoken against these casualties, even serving on the bargaining team of the Chicago Teachers Union in the 2019 labor contract negotiations. It’s this advocacy that earned her the 2020 Elizabeth Futas Catalyst for Change Award from the American Library Association.
“When someone like that, who’s really at the top of their game, is in that position, it’s hard. It affects everyone,” Coonley eighth grade teacher Patricia Meegan said about Wiltse. “Obviously, if it happens to someone like that, who really has been an advocate — and so talented — and really a force for leading the fight for librarians, I think that speaks volumes.”