Public Education Committee Reveals “Woefully” Underfunded Library Programs

Glendale Middle School Stacks - Image Credit: Salt Lake City School District
Glendale Middle School Stacks – Image Credit: Salt Lake City School District

Most science books available to Utah students are old enough to run for Congress and remember when the Cold War was a fearful reality. On Wednesday morning members of the House addressed the issues facing Utah public education system, most notably the apparent long term neglect of library upkeep.

“Utah school libraries have been neglected, due to diminishing funds, over the last few years,” said Cheryl Smith, a former Granite School District Library Director.

Studies have shown over the last few decades that schools with current and well kept books correlate with improved math, science and critical thinking scores. These findings include score improvements in students who do not have access to books at home.

During the hearing, Smith mentioned a question posed earlier during the interim by Representative Steve Eliason (Republican – Sandy) on whether WPU (Weighted Pupil Unit) funds could be used in other areas if library collections were deemed up to date. Smith replied that she was “…Willing to bet [his] social security check that they’re not.”

Smith went on to point out how outdated Utah’s school libraries are, with the average year of publication of science-related book being 1979. Smith chalked up the average age to when school library funding was turned into block grants, thus requiring them to compete with other programs like Special Education.

Fawn Morgan, a recently retired librarian of 25 years at Layton High, bemoaned the state’s lack of current reading material available to students. “The one thing I was embarrassed about, really embarrassed, was despite my diligent effort on my part [over the course of twenty years], I hadn’t been able to improve my collection,” said Morgan. “I have to tell you that I think I did all the right things: I went out for grants, I repaired those books, I came up with ways to access free materials, but with all of that work and all of that effort, I had only improved it from twelve years old to ten years old,” continued Morgan.

Current funding for improving Utah school libraries sits at $1.5 million, whereas in 2012, it was $2 million. The average cost of a library book is $24 and, according to Smith, best practices in the field encourage purchasing a new book per student yearly. Currently, the funding puts library funds at $0.90 per student.

Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper) responded to Smith’s input, citing that no standards or measurements were used for the funding, making it an entitlement similar to class size reduction funds. Smith then responded that school libraries do have to adhere to a standard, however, the standards were also “woefully out of date.” Smith said that based on her surveying of district supervisors throughout the state, they would be in favor of using metrics and standards to regulate how funding is distributed.

Representative Lyle Hillyard (Republican – Logan), commenting on Smith’s brief, said “…These groups to come to us time and time again, this is only one of many groups [that are] very worthwhile, but why are we at the state level making that decision of allocation. Why don’t we just take the money, put it in a block grant to the elected school board and say ‘you make the decision.’” Hillyard continued, saying “I represent three school district and one may say ‘school libraries are real important’ and want to double the funding, I may have another school district who say ‘no school nurses or school counselors are more important.’ […] I understand we raise the taxes and it violates a principle I really believe in, I think the person that spends the money ought to raise the taxes.”

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