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‘Something sinister is happening…’

Decisions with important implications for students are being left to 'legal eagles' who 'seem to know very little about education.'

“In the basement of the California Mart building in downtown Los Angeles, one can find a series of bright, cavernous rooms buzzing with the sound of the fluorescent panels that hang from a ceiling of exposed ducts and wiring,” writes a school media specialist who identifies herself online as Mizz Murphy.

“… This is where teachers come to defend their qualifications in front of a judge in the hopes that someone in the legal system will understand what the students of this city really need. From what I’ve seen in the last two days, that just doesn’t seem likely.”

Thus begins a riveting first-person account of a series of hearings conducted this month by the Los Angeles Unified School District to determine whether school librarians are qualified to remain with the district as classroom teachers.

LAUSD has issued pink slips to more than 7,000 district employees as part of a Reduction in Force (RIF) effort to close a looming budget gap. Dozens of those employees are school librarians, whose only chance of keeping their job is to prove they’re qualified to be transferred to classroom teaching.

One of these librarians, Mizz Murphy, wrote a May 9 blog post describing the process, in which—if her story is accurate—school librarians were subjected to rigorous questioning from LAUSD lawyers intended to prove they aren’t qualified to teach.

A case in point, according to the blog post, was this exchange between a lawyer for the district and a teacher librarian (TL), which seemed designed to catch the TL in a contradiction:

LAUSD: How much of your school day would you say you spend teaching?

TL: I teach all day long.

LAUSD: You teach all day?

TL: Yes.

LAUSD: Do you ever catalog books?

TL: Yes.

LAUSD: Are you teaching while you are cataloging books?

TL: (pause) No.

LAUSD: Do you ever write purchase orders for library materials?

TL: Yes.

LAUSD: Are you teaching while writing these purchase orders?

“Ack!” Mizz Murphy writes in response to this exchange. “First, teachers have conference periods. That’s when they take care of administrative and clerical tasks. Second, TLs do all these things in the moments between classes, or after school, or when a class cancels its appointment because of district-mandated testing, for example. If this is the kind of thing that’s going to persuade the judge to rule against us, I will have lost my faith in judges.”

Earlier, she says of the district lawyers: “They are there to squash the credibility of teachers and librarians without mercy. My employer has become my enemy.”

In her blog post, Mizz Murphy acknowledges that she is a teacher and librarian, not an impartial reporter. Yet, a column by a Los Angeles Times reporter appears to corroborate her account of the hearings.

“To get the librarians off the payroll, the district’s attorneys need to prove to an administrative law judge that the librarians don’t have … recent teaching experience,” the Times‘ Hector Tobar wrote May 13. “To try to prove that they do teach, the librarians, in turn, come to their hearings with copies of lesson plans they’ve prepared and reading groups they’ve organized.”

He adds: “If they could speak freely at their dismissal hearings, the librarians likely would tell all present what a tragedy it is to close a library. Instead, they sit and try to politely answer such questions as, ‘Have you ever taught physical education?’”

In describing these events, Mizz Murphy writes that, “Something sinister is happening, but I can’t yet put my finger on it.” Yet she hints at it in a paragraph suggesting a process that is more concerned about saving money than the quality of education that results:

“Perhaps the most important thing to note … is that these legal eagles seem to know very little about education. Pedagogy, current research, and national trends escape them. Their line of questioning is often nonsensical and even absurd, eliciting ripples of laughter among the forty or so educators watching the proceedings. These are the people making the decisions about what will happen, day after day, in our schools.”

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