Two years ago, the Chicago Public Schools budgeted for 454 librarians. Last year, the budget called for 313 librarians, and now that number is down to 254.
With educators facing tough financial choices, having a full-time librarian is becoming something of a luxury in Chicago's more than 600 public schools.
It's not that there's a shortage of librarians in Chicago, and it's not mass layoffs — it's that the librarians are being reassigned.
"The people are there, they're just not staffing the library, they're staffing another classroom," says Megan Cusick, a librarian at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School. She says all across the district, certified librarians are being reassigned to English classrooms, world languages or to particular grade levels in elementary schools.
"We got down to the point of saying well, we have a classroom and it doesn't have a teacher," says Scott Walter, a parent at Nettlehorst Elementary on the city's north side — a popular school in the upper-middle class Lakeview neighborhood on the city's North Side.
He says when the district stopped funding specific positions and let principals and school council's decide how to spend their money, the numbers weren't adding up.
"Here's the position and she can be in a library or we can have a teacher in front of 30 kids. And no matter how much you love libraries, and as much as I do, you can't have a classroom without a teacher in front of it," Walter says.
Ultimately, Nettlehorst had to move its librarian, who is also a certified teacher, into a fourth grade classroom.
In the state of Illinois, all librarians must also have teaching certifications, and most have endorsements to teach specific grades and subjects.
There's also no required amount of minutes for library instruction in the state of Illinois, so schools won't face any repercussions if they don't have a librarian or a school library.
Scott Walter says Nettlehorst students are still able to check out books, because the clerk and parent volunteers help staff it. Still, he says, it's a lose-lose.
"It feels again as a parent, it feels that CPS has set us up into a situation where we have to decided which finger we don't want," he says.
Chicago school officials wouldn't go on tape for this story. In a fact sheet sent to WBEZ, they touted the district's expanded virtual libraries available to all students. A spokesperson wrote, "we will not be satisfied until we have central and/or classroom-based libraries in every school."
At a school board meeting this summer, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett addressed the issue and says the real problem is with hiring.
"It's not that we don't want to have librarians in libraries. Nobody can argue that point, but the pool is diminished," she says.
Librarian Megan Cusick says if the hiring pool is empty, that's because so many librarians are being reassigned.
She says with so many librarians being transferred to the classroom something bigger is being lost. Librarians teach kids how to do research; how to find and evaluate information, which she says is even more important in the digital age.
"Kids don't just know how to do that. It's not a skill that they develop just because they have an iPhone or because they have a computer at home, which many of our students don't have," she says.
Cusick and her colleagues don't want to see librarians added at the expense of other positions, like art teachers and physical education teachers. But they also don't want to see school libraries just become places where books are stored and meetings are held.