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Kanawha library, school board discuss future funding

CHARLESTON, W.Va. --  Kanawha school board members agree that they need to help the public library stay above water while it transitions with the loss of a major funding stream, but it remains unclear how much money school officials would contribute -- if any -- once the fiscal year ends in June.

On Monday, the Kanawha County Board of Education met publicly for the first time to discuss its plans for the library after its members won a lawsuit last month that struck down a 1957 special act mandating it give a chunk of its budget to libraries each year.

Without the annual $3 million from the school board -- about 40 percent of the library's entire budget -- major cutbacks are on the horizon for Kanawha library services. On Monday afternoon, the library announced it is ending Sunday hours in Charleston and St. Albans effective immediately.

"Well, we got what we asked for, but what does that mean?" said school board member Robin Rector. "I value the library's services. They not only provide for our schools, but for our community.

"We're in a current fiscal year where we plan to meet your needs, and I personally think we should honor that. But we need to discuss where we go from there. We're like every other community agency in this valley -- we're strapped and hurting for dollars as well."

The school board first took the library to court in 2003 in an attempt to break free of the funding agreement. Library officials asked Monday for the school board to voluntarily fund the library even though they're no longer required by law to do so.

But the school board is facing financial struggles of its own, and is projecting a more than $4 million deficit for the 2014 budget.

"Even though it took 10 years to get here, it sort of shocked everyone when it happened," said school board member Bill Raglin. "We need to ensure that what the public wants, the public gets, and that the funding mechanism is something they can count on -- not just a way of getting over this hump through some voluntary contribution that could change with the next board."

Karen Ireland, a mother of two Kanawha County students, presented school board members with a petition of nearly 500 signatures asking that they voluntarily fund the library at the $3 million mark. She said the petition was circulated only 48 hours before the meeting.

"I'm here to ask any of you who view the library as anything less than a fundamental piece of our children's education to have a change of heart," she said. "An under-funded library will hurt students."

Library board President Mike Albert said he was relieved to hear the school board would not be making any decisions Monday, and encouraged dialogue between the two entities. He plans to meet with Superintendent Ron Duerring today to discuss the issue further.

Albert said the library has always been "intimately and extensively involved in the education of Kanawha County students." While the school board is no longer required to fund the library, it still has a say in who is appointed to the library board and oversees its accounting.

More than 40 schools have libraries that use the Kanawha library's computer catalog, and the library loans 50,000 books to school libraries in addition to servicing seven schools with a mobile library, Albert said.

"By and large, it's worked very well. The partnership has been a terrific benefit to the children, students and adult populations," he said. "We understand the concerns that brought the board of education to litigate the funding, but we continue to believe and hope that the interests of all of us are best served by leaving that close arrangement intact.

"I get concerned when it comes across sounding like this has been a one-way street," he said. "The fact of the matter is, we've been an arm -- an ancillary if you will -- for the Board of Education in our efforts."

Board member Becky Jordon voiced her concerns with the current cap on the school excess levy and how it will hinder future income. Library officials have voiced interest in the school board promoting a separate levy to support library services as an attempt to recover the money through tax dollars.

"Yes, we need that $3 million, but we need you, too," Jordon told library representatives Monday. "I don't want our library doors to shut. I can't say we support education, and then not support libraries. I don't know how we're going to do it."

Board member Jim Crawford said he "doesn't have a problem with" collaborating with library officials to find a way for everyone to have some funding.

Board President Pete Thaw said he was willing to "take some steps to alleviate the library's situation," but stood behind the Supreme Court decision and recommended the library look to the Legislature for help instead.

"I am not unsympathetic to the library's situation. However, it is not the responsibility of this board to alleviate your financial problems," he said. "We now have spent $270,911 in legal fees on two court cases against you, and we won both of them.

"Each time, people want us to walk away after we win, and I am adamantly opposed to walking away from this one," he said. "I am willing to work with you, but I'm not willing to stick it to the taxpayers."

More than 60 percent of the library's budget is made up of personnel costs. Thaw compiled a list of library administrators' salaries for the board, with director Alan Engelbert at the top of the list, making $100,000.

Thaw also showed that the amount the school board has paid the library during the past 15 years has increased by more than $1.2 million.

Duerring urged board members to remember that the looming budget deficit is mostly because of cutbacks they can't control, and that there will be a deficit regardless of whether they stop funding the library.

"That will lessen the blow, but we're still heading that way," he said. "Even if you kept that money, you're still going to have a deficit because there's still not enough revenue coming in. We've been accustomed to think it's business as usual, but we've hit a wall. We're there. We have two paths to take: look for additional revenues or make cuts."

Albert said he's optimistic about the two boards' relationship going forward to find a solution.

"The most positive thing that came out of this is a willingness of the library and the board of education to sit down and see what we can do with the problem," he said. "We hope we can work with the board to establish a continuing and long-range arrangement going forward so we can continue serving the educational needs of students in Kanawha County."Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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