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Library forced to cancel book festival

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County Public Library Board of Directors voted with reluctance Monday to cancel this year's West Virginia Book Festival -- the latest cost-saving measure since the state Supreme Court ruled that local school boards no longer have to financially support libraries.

"I have grappled with it, and I hate to say it, but the problem is we don't have time to wait. If it comes down to canceling the festival or keeping the essence of the library operating, it's a pretty clear call," said library board President Mike Albert. "It would be a sad thing and a loss for this community. It's really gotten legs in the past four or five years."

The West Virginia Book Festival, a multi-day fall event celebrating books and reading in Charleston, has been held every year since 2000 and has attracted bestselling authors such as Nicholas Sparks and Charlaine Harris.

While it was a unanimous decision, several board members hung their heads and cupped their hands over their faces during Monday's vote. But officials said canceling the event would save hundreds of thousands of dollars as the library attempts to cope with the loss of 40 percent of its budget -- about $3 million -- that the Kanawha County Board of Education is no longer required by law to provide.

Plans for the annual book sale associated with the festival are still on.

"Personally, I despise the idea," said KCPL Director Alan Engelbert. "I hate to be sitting here suggesting this, but we have to."

Board of Education officials have voiced support for continuing funding for the library through the fiscal year, which ends in June, but whether the board will voluntarily provide funding for the library past that date is unclear.

On Monday, library officials approved a proposal requesting that the school board provide $2.5 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year in hopes that they will agree to a "fixed-funding scenario" in the future, Albert said.

"It's something that, at least for the upcoming fiscal year, we could live with that wouldn't result in massive layoffs and wouldn't have a significant adverse impact on operations that we provide to the board and to schools," he said. "This would enable us to have time to put something more permanent in place and allow us to deal with cutbacks in a rational way and move forward.

"We're hoping they'll take this as an intermediate step, and then discuss with us a possible relationship for the long-term," he said.

Even if the board agrees to contribute the $2.5 million, the library would still have to make major cutbacks to materials, computer purchases and hours of operation, Engelbert said. The library has already announced Sunday closures in Charleston and St. Albans.

The library board also unanimously approved a resolution to ask both the City of Charleston and the Kanawha County Commission to sponsor levies that would bring money in to support library services, beginning July 1.

The county levy would produce about $3.2 million, while the city would bring in more than $1 million.

Jim Withrow, the school board's attorney who also sits on the library board, abstained from voting on Monday's recommendation. Still, he spoke out against the library board's support of legislation that calls for all school boards in the state to set aside 1 percent of their budgets for libraries.

Last month, the court ruled that a 1957 special act requiring Kanawha and several other county school boards to financially support their libraries was unconstitutional because it created unequal treatment in the state's school funding process.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, plans to introduce a bill that requires all county school boards to set aside money for libraries, therefore eliminating any unfair or unconstitutional treatment.

"I support a good, secure source of funding for libraries in the state, but I can't support this bill," Withrow said. "For one thing, there's probably eight or nine counties in the state right now with boards of education who will end the fiscal year in a deficit. Taking away 1 percent from those counties is only going to increase their issues."

Library board members also voiced their concern for the impact cutbacks at different branches would have on communities and vowed to talk more about the personal effects of the loss of library services in addition to the financial struggles.

"Librarians have asked about the kids who do their homework at the library because they don't have computers. What's going to happen to those kids if the libraries shut down? Those are the stories that resonate," said board member Virginia Rugeley.

"There's another side to this. It's the community impact we're not really capturing -- what does it mean to not have a library in the community?" said board member Michelle Foster.

Sponsors for the West Virginia Book Festival include the Library Foundation of Kanawha County, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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