Library media department in Greenwich schools feels unsung and understaffed

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Aaron Johnson, a media specialist at Greenwich High School.

Aaron Johnson, a media specialist at Greenwich High School.

Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

GREENWICH — The role of a library media specialist in the Greenwich Public Schools extends far beyond the checkout desk.

Their job description includes teaching classes on media literacy, maintaining the media center, providing resources for teachers and students, and acting as ambassadors for digital learning, a facet of the job that was particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re not the book-stamp librarians that some may have us stereotyped as,” said Aaron Johnson, who is a media specialist at Western Middle School.

But the media department has become increasingly spread thin, especially at the middle school level, according to Johnson and the union representing Greenwich teachers, the Greenwich Education Association.

In 2020, Johnson’s position as media specialist at Western Middle School was cut. If not for the retirement of a colleague, Johnson would’ve been forced to transfer to the social studies department. Johnson retained his job in Western’s media department, but the cut position was never filled. Since then, one media specialist at Western has been tasked with doing the work formerly done by two.

At Eastern Middle School, a media specialist resigned the post and is moving to fill a position at Greenwich High. That spot, at Eastern, is now also frozen and up for review.

And three media assistant positions — two at Greenwich High and one Central Middle School — are also frozen, according to a June 17 district financial report. Media assistants are not certified teachers, as media specialists are, but they provide the administrative assistance that makes the job of a media specialist possible.

“Those positions are more clerical positions and actually involve running some of the day-to-day stuff in the library,” said former GEA President Carol Sutton, whose term ended last week. “It’s positions like those that enable the media specialists to do their work with teachers and students. That work doesn’t go away, it just has to be picked up by somebody else.”

For Johnson, this is problematic not just because the frozen positions undercut and already unsung and under-appreciated department, but also because of the way the freezes were communicated to the staff and the public.

Johnson, as well as the leadership at the GEA, said they first learned the positions would not be filled in June, after the budget process was over and after the opportunity to protest programmatic cuts had largely passed.

“The reason that this is frustrating is Greenwich, with the budget processes, when they come for positions, usually there’s discussion about it,” Johnson said. “But when things happen in June, there’s no discussion. It just happens.”

Recommendations vs. reality

The district’s 2021-22 budget book lists staffing recommendations for every department. For the media department, the district recommends five at the high school, two at each middle schools and one full-time media specialist at each elementary school.

The reality, as Johnson has pointed out, is that the media departments in two of the district’s three middle schools are at half staff.

“Why are those recommendations not being followed?” he said.

Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones said uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in staffing levels in the media department.

“We work directly with the principals and school leadership when a position opens up, and we always evaluate the role and make any considerations for replacing or repurposing positions based on the current needs of the building,” Jones said. “At the outset of this school year, we were unsure about costs related to the pandemic, and therefore several open positions remained frozen.”

According to Jones, several positions first frozen in the 2019-20 school year remained frozen in the subsequent year due to the financial uncertainty. The Central Middle School media specialist position and the Greenwich High media assistant position were among them, although the latter was filled by a substitute this past school year, according to Jones. The position at Eastern opened up more recently, she said.

“District administration will continue to work with school leadership on the ongoing evaluation of these positions,” Jones said.

But, like Johnson, Sutton, whose term ended this week, questioned the process.

“Unless you’re paying attention, somebody wouldn’t really know this,” Sutton said. “Because these changes are made without any input from the community or transparency, nobody would necessarily know about them. ... Process is very important and these changes are being made outside o the process.”

According to Sutton, the concern among library media staff is that these are, in fact, long-term changes to the department, which were made to fund other positions. Sutton noted the hiring this year of elementary school math interventionists. The salaries of those new employees will be paid for using nonrecurring COVID-relief funds, which means that the 2021-22 budget year, the district will either have to eliminate the new positions or find another way to fund them.

Especially with tight budgetary constraints on the Board of Education from the Board of Estimate and Taxation, adding new positions presents problems.

“They’re going to have to operationalize and get it the interventionists in the budget,” Sutton said. “Is it going to be a zero-sum game? If they want the interventionists, they’re going to have to cut from somewhere else.”

Johnson said he understands the district’s position in the COVID-19 era — cuts need to be made, and not all positions vacated can be filled. But he believes the media department in the Greenwich Public Schools plays a crucial role in educating students, and that it should be fully staffed.

“My piece is that we believe in the recommendations,” Johnson said. “The recommendations are appropriate and they keep the buildings running. Wen we don’t have the recommendations it puts more stress on teachers and students. And we can’t implement the programs we want to implement.”

Editor’s note: This story incorrectly said Aaron Johnson had been reassigned as a media specialist and moved from Western Middle School to Greenwich High School. It has been corrected to state that Johnson’s media specialist position was cut at Western Middle School, but because his colleague retired, he remained in his role at the middle school.; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586