Leaders in Fort Worth ISD have committed to investing $2.6 million over the next several years to update severely outdated library collections on campuses across the district.
The issue will also be a priority in the next budget cycle.
But the changes, made possible by an unprecedented infusion of federal dollars in COVID-relief funding, come after advocacy by librarians at the campus and district level went unanswered for years.
Matthew Booth, a librarian at Morningside Middle School, said it has been an uphill battle that came to a head with the pandemic.
“We’ve let it go for too long,” he said.
Among those advocating for greater funding have been community groups that have worked with librarians in some of the highest-need schools to buy books.
Community organizations fund libraries
While the district has waited years to address the gaps in library resources, community leaders, philanthropists and individuals have cobbled together funds to try and keep libraries up-to-date.
The patchwork of efforts have made a difference on individual campuses, but left the age and quality of books across the district largely unchanged.
In 2016 the East Fort Worth Business Association (EFWBA), led by long-time East Fort Worth resident Wanda Conlin, began an educational initiative they hoped would spark investment by groups across the city.
As the district began a push for literacy, the group met with principals and librarians in the Eastern Hills Pyramid to gauge needs and ended up giving over $9,000, the first of several contributions they would make.
Tobi Jackson, Fort Worth school board president, was part of that effort in her capacity as board member for the association.
“The concept was simple,” Jackson said. “A small, local organization heavily invested in East Fort Worth can set the example and lend support to our youth and their pursuit of literacy.”
Schools worked with the association to select books based on their needs, with some buying more Spanish language books to address shifting demographics and others looking to find books that were more diverse to reflect their student population.
Later, funding was given directly to librarians to decide how to spend.
Conlin said the hope was for other community organizations to join the effort, and fund school libraries in their respective communities.
Charles Hodges, the director of the Family Action Center at Fort Worth ISD, spearheaded the donation for the organization. He said that even if it didn’t make a widespread change in the district, it had an impact on the students at certain schools.
“If enough small, relatively small or geographically defined organizations banded together, they could really make a huge impact on the books that are available to children, in our schools in particular,” Hodges said. “In the whole scheme of things, it may not be a lot. But it’s that it makes an impact to this small geographic area that we serve.”
District action follows private investment
A recent shift in leadership, along with a staggering loss of books over the course of the pandemic, spell changes for the way funds will be allocated moving forward.
Marcey Sorensen, who has been the chief academic officer for a number of weeks, told the Star-Telegram that she is committed to ensuring the funding structure is grounded in equity.
Carter Cook, the director of Library Media Services, said Sorensen agreed to use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to first replace the more than 88,000 books that were never checked back in after schools were shut down last March, and then begin to rebuild libraries with the highest need across the district.
“She is concerned about it as an equity issue and said we will address it in the next budget cycle,” Cook said.
In the lead-up to the pandemic, the funding problems were already dire. Fort Worth ISD Board President Tobi Jackson said the number of schools spending nothing on libraries doubled in the last three years.
“Combining this trend with inequitable funding has resulted in the quantity and quality of library collections throughout the FWISD varying greatly from school to school,” she said. “In the next budget cycle, administrators will be advocating for more robust funding for library books to extinguish the disparities and disproportionalities in library book collections from school to school within FWISD.”
Even as changes are discussed, campus leaders are allocating small budgets for libraries, with some giving less than $500 to spend on books for the 2021-22 school year.
Analysis shows deficiencies
In 2018, The Gary Patterson Foundation analyzed the needs of libraries across the entire district.
What the nonprofit, which has supported educational pursuits in Fort Worth for the past 20 years, found reflected an analysis by the Star-Telegram years later: only 16% of Fort Worth ISD libraries met state standards for age and total number of books, and 84% of school libraries rate below standard in one or both.
As an answer, the foundation began a campaign called Launch into Literacy that provided funding for FWISD librarians to expand and update library collections. In the years since they have donated $500,000 to libraries across the district, according to their website, making up as much as 15% of the entire district’s spending on libraries one year.
Jackson, who said there are plans for more robust funding for library books in the next budget cycle, credits the donations and advocacy of organizations like the East Fort Worth Business Association with getting the district to a place where changes could be made.
“This is why the EFWBA impetus, followed by donations from Facebook, Read Fort Worth and others have been essential and greatly appreciated,” she said. “These community donations have reduced the disparities and disproportionalities on many campuses, which is a point of pride for our community.”
Other efforts, including individual fundraisers by librarians have shown success at chipping away at aged collections.
At De Zavala Elementary school, thousands of dollars in individual donations have poured into the school this week after the state of the library was highlighted in a previous Star-Telegram story. That funding is substantial for a library that has received only $1,500 in the last three years.
District fix necessary
But without consistent funding at an adequate level across the district, the age, amount and quality of books have not changed much since the investments from The Gary Patterson Foundation or the EFWBA were made.
“We very much appreciate these donations, no matter how large or small, but they do not typically contribute to sustaining a library collection,” Cook said. “For example, $700 will purchase about 30-40 hardcover library books. For a library collection of 9,000+ items, 30-40 new books won’t move the needle towards meeting standards for average age or quantity of items.”
Large investments like the infusion of cash from The Gary Patterson Foundation was a start, but “even the schools that used several thousands of dollars donated by The Gary Patterson Foundation to update their library collections couldn’t sustain the improvements after the first year or so. “
“Consistent and sufficient annual funding is key to keeping library collections ‘refreshed’ and dynamic,” Cook said.