When longtime librarian Nora Wiltse left Coonley Elementary in June, having lost her job to budget constraints, she wasn’t sure where she would go next.
“I couldn’t envision someone hiring me with the budgets that were just handed out because I think it was over 40% of the schools had a budget cut,” said Wiltse, who has worked for Chicago Public Schools for 19 years. “After tracking (CPS librarian) numbers for years and years, the amount of schools that hire librarians is so small that to find someone to give me a chance seemed really unlikely.”
Less than two months after receiving a pink slip, Wiltse said she has accepted a position at King College Prep High School in the North Kenwood neighborhood of the South Side. CPS confirmed the news Tuesday. The selective enrollment school served about 625 students last year.
Wiltse said King’s library shuttered years ago, and she is excited to get to work rebuilding the room and the book collection. She said the space had recently been used for testing and lunch breaks. When she visited, she noted the empty circulation desk and dust on the books, which were not lined up properly on the shelves. She also saw a lot of potential.
“It’s a perfect location in the center of the school. I got very excited walking in there because it’s a great challenge,” Wiltse said. “And to have a principal who is backing you to make that program how I envision it, that’s an exciting opportunity.”
Wiltse spent the last 14 years at Coonley, a 900-student school in the North Center neighborhood. Budget woes meant that three positions were on the chopping block in the spring. Outcry from colleagues, students, parents, alumni and the Chicago Teachers Union did not save Wiltse’s $97,780-a-year position.
Just last week, CTU publicly decried the lack of librarians in CPS’ 500-plus district-run schools. “There is plenty of money and urgency for additions to Soldier Field, but more than 80% of traditional CPS schools — including 82% of elementary schools — don’t have librarians,” the union tweeted.
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Wiltse has been outspoken against cutting librarian positions, even serving on the union’s bargaining team in the 2019 labor contract negotiations. It’s this advocacy that earned her the 2020 Elizabeth Futas Catalyst for Change Award from the American Library Association.
The Chicago Board of Education recently approved the district’s $9.4 billion budget for the coming school year. CPS has emphasized that it is pumping an additional $240 million into its school budgets districtwide compared with this past school year. Per-pupil funding has also increased by 8%, CPS said. Members of Coonley’s Local School Council, which is tasked with approving the school’s budget, said there wasn’t enough money to retain everyone for the fall.
CPS released a statement late Tuesday saying it “entrusts our principals to make staffing decisions to best serve their students and staff.” A spokesperson said there were 256 teachers whose positions will “no longer be available” at the start of the new school year but that “all teachers in good standing are guaranteed full-time employment at CPS and District staff are working to place qualified candidates in new schools as quickly as possible.”
Wiltse grows emotional as she recalls saying goodbye to Coonley and its students under such “sad circumstances.” But she is looking forward to being in school when King students return Aug. 22.
“The 650 students at King College Prep deserve a library and a librarian, and they will now get one, many of them for the first time. So that’s very exciting and encouraging. On the other hand, 850 students at Coonley will no longer have a librarian,” Wiltse said.
“I’m so glad I’ll be able to stay in CPS. I’m glad I’ll have these new challenges. But I don’t think of it as a win. If we want our students in CPS to have librarians, we have to stop losing the jobs.”