Allentown School District and its low priority for libraries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the chances of your child someday becoming a professional athlete are one in 21,322. The chances of making more than the median wage for a professional athlete?

One in 42,644.

And what is the median wage for pro athletes in America? Why, it's a crummy $40,060, says the BLS, and that is less than what's paid to the average 18-wheel semi driver. (I could not find the percentage of Americans who get huge salaries in pro sports, but I imagine it's something like one in a million.)

Obviously, unless you are a real gambler who expects to beat 42,644-to-one odds, your child may need more than gym or football to have a shot at any job that pays a decent salary. Your child may need — gasp — the kind of schooling that involves a library.

Nevertheless, there are many parents and school board members who, when it comes to public school priorities, believe statistics work in favor of putting all the eggs in a sports basket. The future of children depends on nurturing brawn, not brains.

Check the trophy cases in your child's school lobby to see whether officials there emphasize sports or academics. (Academic trophies require significant teaching skills, a concept that horrifies some educators.)

That is how we wind up with one librarian for all 15 of the Allentown School District's 15 elementary schools. That is how we wind up with no library classes to teach any of that district's 9,000 children how to find what they need in a library.

More important to your future, those 9,000 are told, are the touchdowns, basketball goals or wrestling points achieved by a tiny minority of students, to the delight of the mindless twits who pack the stands.

As reported Sunday on The Morning Call's front page, budget cuts in past years eliminated nine of 13 elementary school librarians, part of the 350 jobs slashed by the district over the past four years.

"Librarians have become a luxury the district believes it can scarcely afford," wrote reporter Adam Clark. "Surviving librarians fear elementary students are no longer learning essential research skills."

The story focused on Allentown's Trexler Middle School and noted drastic reductions in the number of books checked out of the library there, which is disturbing in a school district with a high poverty rate, and with many students who need brains more than brawn to pull themselves out of it.

"Where else besides the school library do they have a chance to just lose themselves in reading and strive to develop the aspirations that will lead them to success?" Gail Dickinson, president of the American Library Association, was quoted as saying.

Some children have been forced to turn to the excellent Allentown Public Library, but that is cumbersome and more time consuming than having a library and a librarian in a student's own school.

Superintendent Russ Mayo seemed to be ridiculing those concerned about the lack of library services in his district, expressing doubt "that the library was the vault of the treasure of all knowledge or information."

If a library is not such a vault, what is? The Internet with its vast array of junk research sites? Locker rooms where football coaches can enlighten players with X's and O's on a blackboard?

I understand the budgetary strife faced by Allentown and many other school districts, especially with Gov. Tom Corbett's actions to slash educational funding (although his anti-public-school zeal has subsided a bit in this election year).

Accordingly, on Monday, I asked ASD spokeswoman Kimberly Golden Benner a few questions about what the district has done in other areas while it was gutting library services, such as, "What sort of cuts have been made in corresponding years when it comes to sports programs?"

I asked how many football coaches the ASD has now, recalling that a few years ago, a previous superintendent, former gym teacher Diane Scott, once refused to buy any new library books at the same time she had 18 football coaches on the payroll.

How many reductions, I asked, have been made in the district's administrative staff? Speaking of paper shufflers, I also wondered about the total amount of taxpayer money the district spends on their salaries.

The last I heard about Mayo's salary, it was $170,000 (not counting his other compensation goodies) when he was only acting superintendent, so I asked about that on Monday, too, mentioning my column's deadline time on Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, I will be unable to meet your deadline for information," Benner replied Tuesday afternoon. If she ever does provide the answers, I'll tell you all about it.

By the way, I did not ask Benner about the thorny issue of snazzy new furniture the district recently purchased for the paper shufflers. Teachers union President Debbie Trotter said it was $350,000, at a time the district was slashing the jobs of people who actually teach children, but the district claimed it was only $35,934.66.

Anyway, don't worry about your child's future. There are only 42,643 others competing against him or her for each of those pro athlete jobs that pay more than the $40,060 median. Who cares about those tedious jobs that may require him or her to read and write or add 2 plus 2? Rah, team.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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