Fewer than one in five Maryland school libraries meet state standards for the minimum number of books and other supplies. Yet when the state offered millions of dollars to buy more, some districts said no.
Allegany, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Somerset counties let the state aid go in 1998 because it required a match of local dollars. Allegany, Anne Arundel and Talbot turned down all or most of the money the next year, too.
While state officials hope for greater participation this year, those familiar with the plight of school libraries warn that books are too low a priority for Maryland schools - particularly given the critical role they can play in boosting reading skills.
"The media center can impact the whole school and help make all children better readers. But when the budget needs to be cut, library books often get hit," says Irene Hildebrandt, supervisor of media in Carroll County.
"There's only so much in the pie, and school libraries in Maryland aren't getting very much of it."
For more than two decades, school libraries - or media centers, as they're often called - have been getting short shrift when it comes to funding.
Sometimes it's because library funding is an easy cut for school boards looking to balance budgets in the 11th hour. Other school systems divert book funding to computers, hoping to keep up with the latest technology.
And as principals have been given more control over their schools' budgets, many have sacrificed library spending for other areas, at times even replacing certified librarians with instructional assistants.
"You do that year after year, it's going to have an impact," says Gail Bailey, chief of the Maryland State Department of Education's school library media services.
Media specialist Mary MacNemar sees the impact when she looks at the empty spaces on her library shelves at Solley Elementary School in Anne Arundel County.
For all of the new books she's able to put into children's hands this fall, there are still those two years' worth that she wasn't able to buy.
Eager to read
"The kids love the new books. They're so eager to read them," MacNemar says. "But I still have plenty of space here on my shelves for more."
Only 17 percent of Maryland's 1,300 schools meet the state's standards for the size of their library collections, according to the most recent statistics, from the 1998-1999 school year.
Those standards - developed jointly by state and local educators - call for 12,000 items in elementaries, 15,000 in middle schools and 18,000 in high schools, though it's recommended that larger schools have even more.
The staffing problem is severe, too, with only 52 percent of schools meeting the state's guidelines for the minimum number of certified media specialists. The problem is worsened by the state and national teacher shortage - all librarians are certified teachers who go on to receive more training.
"The conditions of so many of the libraries are just terrible," says Ramona N. Kerby, an associate professor of library media sciences at Western Maryland College, who just completed an analysis of science and technology books in the state's elementary libraries. "I couldn't believe some of the books that were still on the shelves."
Her survey unearthed such titles as a 1961 book "I Want to Be a Homemaker" and another from the same year called "What is a Rocket?"
The cost of upgrading just the science and technology book sections in Maryland's 800-plus elementaries? Almost $50 million, according to Kerby's study.
Other repair estimates are just as high. In Baltimore, city school officials estimated last month that it would cost an average of $188,340 per elementary school to bring the library collections up to the state standards.
And in 1998, state educators estimated that it would take in excess of $86 million to bring the collections in every school library up to Maryland's standards. That estimate doesn't include the cost of replacing the outdated or worn-out items, just adding enough new ones to reach the minimums.
That year, the state began offering $3 million a year in extra aid to school systems to buy elementary library books, as long as local districts matched the money with extra spending of their own.
"Why would you turn down a free gift?" asks Jackie Callis, a media specialist at Winfield Elementary School in Carroll County. "It's money that is badly needed."
Since four districts didn't come up with the matching money in 1998, the state education department had to return $420,000 to Maryland's general fund - enough aid to buy about 28,000 books.
"For school systems to turn down that state funding, I just couldn't believe it," says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who was a key sponsor of the funding legislation.
"School libraries are so important to kids," she said. "For kids living in areas that are nowhere near public libraries, ... the school libraries are their best source of books, but those libraries are in such bad shape."
She wrote letters cajoling the offending school systems not to turn down the state aid again.
But last year, two districts again failed to come up with the local money, and Anne Arundel matched only $60,000 of the $270,000 it was eligible to receive.
"It's hard for me to understand because this was such an opportunity," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "There is a resurgence of effort to fix the libraries, but it's been slow."
The state's effort to give money to school libraries comes as a growing body of research demonstrates how important they can be in helping children learn to read.
The most comprehensive studies, which tracked schools in Alaska, Colorado and Pennsylvania, indicated that well-stocked elementary school libraries with certified media specialists significantly improve kids' reading skills - perhaps by as much as 15 percent.
"The quality of the staffing and the quality of the collection definitely help boost achievement," said Keith Curry Lance, director of Colorado's Library Research Service and a lead author of the studies.
"You can't explain away the improvements we saw by income, class size or anything else. The quality of the library was an important factor in higher reading skills."
Reaching the standard
In those school districts that have taken advantage of the three years of extra state money, it's made a big difference. In Howard County, all but three elementaries now exceed the minimum state standards - with one school just 23 items away, says Carol Fritts, who oversees the county's school library program.
Western Howard's Triadelphia Ridge Elementary opened in 1998 with just 8,500 books and other items - a collection below the state minimum of 12,000 because the school board needed to save money. After two years of $12,000 grants, media specialist Dawne Royo has brought that up to more than 10,000 items.
"All of the shelves were so empty when we opened," Royo says. "Now, it looks like a library is supposed to look, with lots of books that kids want to read."
Baltimore County has gone even further, pledging $10.5 million to help secondary school libraries.
"We finally have the money to develop quality collections in our middle schools and high schools," says Della Curtis, Baltimore County's coordinator of library information services.
"One of the reasons teen-age kids don't read is because we don't give them the time to read, and we don't have books available that they want to read. I think this will help encourage them to want to read."
But statewide, a couple of years' worth of progress won't undo the decade or two of neglect.
That's why when 9-year-old Ashley Price and the rest of her fourth-grade class got their first chance to check out books as a class last week, they scrambled for Solley Elementary's newest ones.
Says Ashley: "I like reading the new ones because they're not torn up or anything. Some of the old ones aren't fun to read."