HERMOSA — Nixon Elementary’s longtime librarian Leslie Westerberg has spent years meeting with elected officials, writing essays for the Chicago Teachers Union and researching district budget cuts for her master’s degree outside of school hours — all in an effort to keep school libraries strong and librarians employed.
Across town, Nora Wiltse has taken a similar approach as Coonley Elementary’s librarian for 14 years, criticizing Chicago Public Schools in news stories and at news conferences for failing to invest in school libraries, particularly on the South and West sides. The American Library Association recognized Wiltse for her advocacy in 2020.
“We both speak out when we see something that’s wrong. Sometimes things are wrong, and they need to be called out, and what CPS has done to school libraries is heartbreaking,” Westerberg said. “Research proves that access to a librarian has the most impact on children who are living in underprivileged communities.”
Earlier this month, just before the end of the school year, Westerberg and Wiltse became victims of the budget cuts they’d battled. They received pink slips June 10 after a combined 23 years running libraries at Nixon and Coonley.
Westerberg and Wiltse are among 256 CPS teachers and 400 support staffers and paraprofessionals who lost their jobs due to this year’s budget shortfall. The two librarians were “reassigned,” meaning they will receive their salary and benefits for up to a school year or until they get a new job within the district, according to letters from CPS.
In a statement, the district said it provides support for teachers whose jobs were eliminated due to budget cuts. Laid-off teachers are encouraged to reapply for jobs at other schools within the district.
“CPS will be hiring throughout the summer and will work to support all affected teachers with reemployment within the District,” according to the district’s statement. “CPS is hosting in-person and virtual hiring fairs throughout the months of June, July and August to facilitate introductions to school leaders with active vacancies.”
But Westerberg said their layoffs “feel a little bit ironic,” considering their years-long efforts to protect school librarians.
Wiltse agreed, saying she was “protected” by Coonley administrators for several years, which allowed her to fight for schools on the South and West sides and librarians who “didn’t have the safety” to be vocal. But now, the thing she’s fought for — well-funded school libraries — has backfired, which she feels is no coincidence.
“This is why it’s really hard for Chicago teachers to speak out for their needs and for their students, because the system punishes the loudest voices,” Wiltse said.
Asked whether Westerberg’s and Wiltse’s advocacy factored into the layoffs, CPS officials said the district doesn’t lay off school employees — principals do.
“Chicago Public Schools entrusts our principals to create a positive environment for students and staff. Principals work with district leaders as they develop their staffing decisions, but it’s ultimately up to each principal to determine how to best utilize their resources,” according to CPS.
Attempts to reach Nixon’s and Coonley’s principals were unsuccessful.
‘Always A Fight With CPS’
Westerberg and Wiltse said they’re devastated their jobs were eliminated and they’re being forced to leave their schools after pouring so much time and energy into building the libraries into vibrant spaces for students.
Westerberg has spent the bulk of her 12-year CPS career growing Nixon Elementary’s library in Hermosa.
When Westerberg arrived at Nixon, the school’s library stocked just 2,000 books and half of the space was being used as a classroom, she said. But the library has grown into a “special space” with 15,000 books, ergonomic tables and 3D printers in the nine years she’s been there, she said.
Westerberg credits her grant-writing and fundraising skills in generating more than $200,000 to overhaul the library.
Westerberg, a Logan Square resident, calls the library her “second home” because she’s spent so much time there processing books and working with students.
“I believe it’s a space where everyone should feel welcome, it’s a space where students develop a love of learning and reading … they learn about technology, we read books together, we do research together. It’s hard to even describe everything we do,” she said.
The library at Coonley Elementary in North Center has experienced a similar trajectory. With help from parents and donors, Wiltse transformed Coonley’s library, bringing in 10,000 books, cozy seating and more, she said.
“I started with an empty room,” Wiltse said. “We had parents raise money for furniture, rugs, updated shelving … every single thing in there was from my time at Coonley, so it’s a very strange feeling to walk out.”
CPS unveiled its preliminary budget for the 2022-23 school year in March. In it, the district announced an overall $139 million increase in school funding and touted investments in teacher support, as well as two additional professional development days for staff. But enrollment is down 10,000 students, which translates into job cuts under the district’s student-based budgeting system.
Nixon and Coonley saw enrollment declines this past school year, which will result in three positions eliminated at Nixon and two slashed at Coonley, according to CPS.
Coonley had a budget of nearly $9 million last school year, dropping to $8.7 million for the 2002-23 school year, according to the district’s public budget. Nixon saw a more drastic drop in enrollment, and its budget was reduced from $7.6 million to $7 million.
Westerberg and Wiltse, who are friends, said the enrollment-fueled layoffs are upsetting personally but will also have detrimental effects on hundreds of students and families.
The cuts are coming amid the pandemic, which has had devastating impacts on student learning and kids’ wellbeing, they said.
“CPS is constantly staying they don’t have the money, that they would love to provide what our kids need, they just don’t have the money. Most of the time that’s true … however, we’re not adequately funded,” Wiltse said. “Right now, CPS could provide what our students need and they’re saving for a rainy day. It’s been pouring for a long time … our kids need the help right now.
“Our students are not reading the way they were pre-pandemic. This is the time we need to surround them with our supports.”
Westerberg and Wiltse said they’re worried the libraries will sit empty next school year and students won’t have access to books and resources they need.
CPS said Nixon’s library will be rebranded as a “media center” next school year. Coonley students will still be able to check out books from their library next school year, according to the district, but it’s unclear if a new librarian will replace Wiltse.
A group of Nixon students drew pictures of Westerberg after noticing she seemed down earlier this month. One student wrote, “You made the library a home to us,” Westerberg said.
An online petition to save Wiltse’s job had garnered more than 650 signatures as of Monday.
“I’m not the type of person who’s afraid to speak up, and it’s possible it cost me my job, but I don’t have regrets with that,” Westerberg said. “I fundamentally believe that if we don’t call out injustices when we see them, then we’re complicit.”
Said Wiltse: “It’s always a fight with CPS. They just wear you down. It’s hard to keep up, to march to protect every cut. I don’t know who will hire me in the system of student-based budgeting, but I’m trying to not let fear take over.”
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