Library positions in the school district were cut from three to the equivalent of one and a half among a myriad of other reductions announced in late February to meet the $3.5 million budget shortfall for the upcoming year; while parents expressed concern about many of the cuts, Ashland Schools Foundation leaders included library funding as a top priority.

Librarian Hazel Smith spends her weeks dashing between Ashland's three elementary schools, averaging a day and a half per week at each school. Next year, she will add yet another school — Ashland Middle School — to her rotation based on the most recent cuts made to the school district's budget.

Smith didn't have time for an interview as she rushed to classes one afternoon at Rivergate where Bellview's kindergarten and first grade classes are housed, but Tree House Books owner Muriel Johnson, who has helped organize school book fairs for the past 20 years, said she didn't know how Smith would handle another library.

"Hazel is amazing, that's all I can say," Johnson said. "I just don't know how she's going to maintain everything with the cuts, and I think it's devastating."

Library positions in the school district were cut from three to the equivalent of one and a half among a myriad of other reductions announced in late February to meet the $3.5 million budget shortfall for the upcoming year. While parents expressed concern about many of the cuts, Ashland Schools Foundation leaders included libraries as a top priority after seeing how much the issue resonated with community members, said Susan Bacon, executive director of the foundation.

"The librarian hours were cut in half; they were cut harder than just about anybody else in the school system," she said.

The foundation already had a bent toward literacy, funding reading specialist positions, AP English classes and a high school tutoring center, she said, and the libraries fit right in with that mission. Restoring funding to libraries would also benefit students in every school and every grade level, she said.

Fundraising goals

To even begin restoring funding to the libraries, the foundation must first raise $275,000 to meet other ongoing obligations such as the reading specialists and the tutoring center. Fully funding the library positions would require an additional $112,000, she said.

The foundation may also consider partially restoring library hours and then donating to other programs they previously supported, such as drama and elementary artists in residence, she said. If more cuts are announced, priorities could shift once again.

The foundation's overall fundraising goal for the year is $410,000, which is ambitious even in a good economy, Bacon said. But after watching the success of fundraisers for the public library, it is obvious the community values their libraries, she said.

"We feel like in a crisis like this, people who can step forward will step forward, especially when we are funding important things like literacy and libraries," she said.

Parents and educators who spoke at last week's school budget meeting said trimming library services would affect students in ways that other program cuts would not.

"Cutting library positions is more than just cutting half of an FTE," parent Stephen Jensen told the school board. "You will lose that sense of mission, that sense of coherence, that has been the hallmark of our library for over 50 years."

Programs supported by the library such as speech and debate, mock trial, model UN and the State of Jefferson scavenger hunt would be "eviscerated" by the cuts, he said.

Becky Kleinhesselink, librarian at South Medford High School, also spoke of the various benefits of libraries, how they level the playing field for students who can't afford computers and how they teach students to find information and become life-long learners.

"Students do better in schools with well-funded and, particularly, well-staffed libraries," she said. "Good libraries do not magically happen. Someone knows which books are both well-written and popular."

The Ashland Schools Foundation hopes to reach its fundraising goals by mid- to late summer, when teaching assignments are finalized, Bacon said. Donations to the foundation can be made online at ashlandschoolsfoundation.org or mailed to 100 Walker Ave.

Tree House Books will also offer community members an opportunity to buy discounted children's books to donate to the school libraries during Children's Book Week beginning May 11.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.