WICKER PARK — After Pritzker School in Wicker Park laid off a just-hired librarian a few weeks into the start of the 2016-2017 school year, more than three dozen parents volunteered to staff the elementary's school library in order to keep it open.
But the Chicago Teachers Union filed a grievance against the school because the roster of 40 volunteers would be taking a union-based job, Pritzker Principal Joenile Albert-Reese confirmed Monday, one day after the conundrum made national headlines when Pritzker parent Michael Hendershot penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the issue.
Hendershot, whose 6-year-old daughter Scarlett, is a first-grader at the school, 2009 W. Schiller St., wrote, "Scarlett enjoys reading, but she has recently faced a serious problem getting the books she wants. The Chicago Teachers Union is preventing her and her classmates from using the school library."
On Monday, Albert-Reese said the school's new librarian, who'd been hired to replace a librarian who had resigned in August, was laid off after the school's 20th-day enrollment count in late September because Pritzker had had fewer students than initially projected.
A top-rated neighborhood school offering a gifted program and a magnet cluster specializing in fine arts, Pritzker serves 762 students. The school had initially expected to serve about 20 more students this year than last year, so the school, which operates on a per-pupil budget, had less money to work with, Albert-Reese said.
"In order to do that, we had to cut positions," Albert-Reese said.
Including salary plus benefits, the full-time librarian position cost the school about $75,000, Albert-Reese said.
Rachel Lessem, a member of the local school council at Pritzker, said each student used to have an hour of library a week, where they learned how to research, how to use databases and how to access other sources of information. The students had homework and grades in library as well.
During the school day, the library is currently not open for use as a library but it is being used for other classes like dance and tutoring, Lessem said. Books are not being checked in or out, she added.
Kevin Hough, a field representative for the Chicago Teachers Union, declined to share a copy of the grievance it filed against Albert-Reese and Pritzker's LSC over the use of parent volunteers in the library.
"This particular grievance contains confidential employment information regarding one of our members; therefore, respectfully, I am unable to share a copy," Hough said via email.
Ronnie Reese, a union spokesman, issued the following statement:
“Sadly, budget cuts and the lack of revenue for Chicago’s public schools continue to affect basic services for our students, but per the Agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Board of Education, bargaining unit work cannot be delegated to non-bargaining unit volunteers. The [union] has offered and continues to offer its full support to the Pritzker Elementary Local School Council in organizing and advocating for restoration of lost funding and its librarian position."
Dorothy Jagonase, who has two children enrolled at Pritzker, said Pritzker parents have always been strongly supportive of the school's teachers and still are.
"As parents, we are first and foremost advocates for our children. I believe that's what parents were doing when volunteering to check out books — to give students access to valuable resources that would have otherwise remain untouched. It seemed a simple solution," Jagonese said.
Albert-Reese said that the parent volunteers never started their assigned shifts in the library even though a schedule had been put together.
Union representatives said specifically one LSC member asked the outgoing librarian to train her in the roles and procedures of the librarian job. And it was that request that prompted the grievance, since the creation of a volunteer librarian position is in violation of the union contract.
Lessem said she was aware another member of the council had a conversation with the outgoing librarian but she was not there and could not comment on the conversation.
"The discussion of volunteers in the library only occurred after it was decided that the library position would be cut. ... The intention was never to replace a union position with a volunteer pool, especially given that the volunteers constituting [the] pool would not have any specialized training or degrees in either library science or education," Lessem said.
Lessem said the decision to eliminate the librarian's job, which she stressed is a teaching position, was "painful" and "not taken lightly by the LSC."
"While I am dismayed at the grievance filed by the union, the blame here lies squarely with the lack of adequate funding for our city's schools. Librarian positions have been on the chopping block for many years due to increasingly limited funding. We are in the lucky position to have a beautifully renovated library full of books. Many schools across the city are not so lucky," Lessem said.
Lessem said that "parents could not possibly replace a librarian."
"Parents can shelve books and check them in and out, tasks which they already did when there was a librarian. Many schools have been using volunteers to keep libraries open for years. Pritzker is not the first and, unless the funding situation is solved, I'm afraid we won't be the last," Lessem said.
While picking up his children, a second- and sixth-grader, Pritzker parent Jason Stiehl on Monday said he did not agree with the union's stance.
"It's incredibly disappointing we don't have a library, and parents are volunteering to support it. The idea is to get kids into a library," Stiehl said.
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