Updated 12:10 p.m.: Copyedit.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk school library aides filled a City Hall room Monday to protest what a union leader said is a violation of their contract.
Although their concern was prompted by a pilot program at Brookside Elementary School, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski recently made it clear that the district is moving ahead “full force” with a change from library aides to library specialists, Norwalk Federation of Education Personnel (NFEP) state representative Elizabeth Guerra said to Board of Education members.
This switch from non-certified positions to certified positions would not only would mean that 18 library aides would have their positions eliminated but also that some school libraries would close as the district struggled to find library specialists, a position that not many people are qualified for, Guerra said to the BoE Personnel and Negotiations Committee, hearing a grievance from the union.
The Fox Run Elementary School is closing as its principal is hoping to have a certified teacher as a library specialist, she said, explaining, “Our biggest concern is direct impact to students.”
“Most of the library has been packed,” Fox Run library assistant Christine Consolati said, describing books on carts crammed into the hallway. “I am running the library on the go, or the students are on the go.”
Consolati said she has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in biology.
“I love books. I am very passionate about them,” she said, describing many efforts to encourage children to read, including recently showing them that there are positive and negative aspects to Benedict Arnold.
The passionate description of dedication to children was repeated over and over.
Helen Nelson from Jefferson Elementary said she teaches the students coding and how to create apps, because, “I want to give them job skills.”
“We really are raising the future of Norwalk in information studies. We are telling them how to find information for the rest of their lives,” she said.
“It’s about fostering a relationship so they trust me,” Gayla Jaubert of Columbus Magnet School said, explaining that she warns students about “brain candy” so that they will read books that challenge them.
Guerra said that the district was “arbitrarily and capriciously” ignoring a part of the union’s contract that calls for negotiating the impact of changes.
NPS Labor Relations Director Anthony Shannon said Guerra was misinterpreting “impact,” as “impact is talking about money only and not the impact on the members personally, losing a job.”
“I think everything that we have a heard so far suggests to me that the board should be commended for hiring these wonderful folks to do this work,” Shannon said. “Nobody is claiming that the library aides aren’t important or that they aren’t doing good work for the district. …There has never been more pressure on the school districts to have increased student outcomes, and really to have those outcomes tied to the performance of the administration and the teachers in the school district.”
The Brookside pilot program enabled a library aide to become a library specialist, transitioning from NFEP to the Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT), he said.
That aide received training at the district’s expense under a program in place in 2012, he said.
Chief Talent Officer Cherese Chery explained that the aide had to be a certified teacher for three years to become a specialist – not to be teaching, but to have the certification.
“The concern is it’s not an easy certification to get,” Guerra said.
Although there was talk of fast tracking aides to get the requisite credentials, mention was made of a $30,000 program to get a library science masters degree at a local college.
She referred to the Sept. 19 meeting with Adamowski and again said that, “It was made clear to us … that negotiations were happening in order to eliminate our positions, the library media aid positions, and however long that was going to take they were going to, in effect, come in and replace those specialists, however long it would take.”
Union leaders were told that the school libraries would close, if need be, until specialists were found, she said, calling that “a huge disservice when you are talking about 18 folks who are doing this work.”
The library aides are already fulfilling the job description of a library specialist, she said.
“Do they do it? Yeah. Should they be doing it? They really shouldn’t but they do it because their primary job description is that ‘they are doing their best for their students,’” Guerra said.
“The fact that they shouldn’t (do it) is really a strong point,” Shannon said. “I think that is what we are trying to address.”
“There is no intention to reduce what we were trying to offer the students,” Shannon said. “…I don’t see how providing certified teachers is doing a disservice to students. I don’t think anyone is saying that these folks are doing a great job it’s just another way to ensure that there is going to be some accountability.”
BoE Vice Chairman Mike Barbis said the Fox Run library has been closed so that it can be made into a modern learning commons.
“We as a Board have not made a decision on this but we have delegated, as allowed under state law, a great deal of power to school governance councils. Let’s be clear, the school governance councils made these decisions,” Barbis said.
Consolati was told in May that her position would be eliminated, and Adamowski made it clear that libraries would close while specialists are sought, Guerra said.
If the “impact was not negotiated,” the remedy would be to go back to the status quo and negotiate, Committee Chairman Mike Lyons said.
The Committee has until Nov. 22 to make a decision, he said.
“A lot of the discussion is talking about the broad decision the Board would make as part of the Strategic Operating Plan,” Lyons said. “That is not the legal issue. … We have to make a decision on the contract. We (as a Committee) don’t have the authority to make a decision on what the libraries will look like for the next 20 years. The decision will be if this position is allowed to move into NFT.”