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McKinley Architects & Engineers

The Thrasher Group

Williamson Shriver Architects

March 15, 2013 - Volume 33 Issue 11

Commentary

“Search for the truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.” - Anne Louise Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad who influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 19th century.

 


 

 

 

by Alan Engelbert

On February 22, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the Kanawha County Board of Education (KCBOE) could no longer be required to provide funding to the Kanawha County Public Library (KCPL) under the 1957 “special act” which organized KCPL. 

KCPL stands to lose $2.9 million or about 40 percent of its budget, which equates to 1.25 perdent of the KCBOE budget.  The KCBOE can continue to fund KCPL voluntarily, and has been asked to do so. Currently 46 of 55 county boards do provide some level of voluntary funding, although in some cases it is very little.

While the decision of the Court is specific to KCPL, there are seven other libraries in West Virginia which by “special acts” of the Legislature are mandated to receive funds through the regular levy of their respective boards of education (Berkeley, Hardy, Harrison, Ohio, Raleigh, Tyler, and Upshur). There are three other libraries which are mandated to receive funds through excess levies (Cabell, Lincoln and Wood). 

All other public libraries in West Virginia are funded through a patchwork of voluntary contributions by municipalities, county commissions and boards of education.  These libraries fare significantly worse in the level, scope and quality of services they can deliver.  In fact, even though West Virginia is sevennth in the nation in state funding to public libraries at $5 per capita, the state ranks 48th when state and local funding are combined.
  
The Legislature is key to any statewide library funding solution. It is critical that a solution be found because of the vital role that libraries play in the educational development of children birth through three, acquisition of early literacy skills, support for K-12 education, support for students pursuing higher education and support for all of us who continue to learn throughout our lives. 

Libraries are the place where those without computers or high-speed Internet access can bridge the digital divide, where job seekers can fill out applications online, and where all can get access to the riches of the Internet and the collections and skills of trained information professionals. Libraries build communities. Libraries are economic development. Libraries are education.

Because libraries are education, one legislative solution proposed to date would require that all boards of education contribute 1 percent of their annual general current expense budgets to the public library or public libraries located in each county. This would likely pass constitutional muster under the Supreme Court’s ruling since all boards of education would be treated the same. 

KCPL’s funding would be reduced under this plan by about $800,000, but it would increase library funding statewide from boards of education from just over $8 million to about $24 million, resulting in great improvement in library service across West Virginia. 

On the other hand, all boards of education would be financially affected, especially those boards that are struggling with their budgets.  Since libraries and boards of education are in the same business, a solution that helps libraries and hurts K-12 education is problematic.

Another solution might be to tie libraries and boards of education together by requiring that a board of education include funding for the library at a defined level (like 1 percent of general current expense budget) in any future excess levy that is proposed by the board. Libraries and the formal education system have overlapping constituencies and together can work to secure passage of levy elections, just as police, fire and EMS are tied together and mutually support passage of levies for those purposes. A bill such as this would not require a school board to run an excess levy election, but would require inclusion of the public library funding if the board does choose to run a levy.

There may be other solutions that will occur to those of you reading this. The library community in West Virginia is open to any idea that will result in a reasonable and  secure source or sources of funding that will help us all plan, improve, and better serve all West Virginians whatever their age, whatever their interests and wherever they may live. 

The decision by the Supreme Court puts library service at risk.  It also provides an opportunity we all should seize to resolve long-standing problems with the current inadequate, patchwork “system” of library funding.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF KCPL

The KCPL is the largest library system in West Virginia and was founded in 1909 by the Woman’s Kanawha Literary Club. From the start, the Charleston Independent School District (CISD) - which was the predecessor of the KCBOE - recognized the importance of the library to education and voluntarily provided funding. In 1911, the Legislature specifically authorized CISD to lay a levy for the library.

When the independent districts were abolished in 1933 and the state went to the county boards, KCPL lost its levy funding from the old statute. Nevertheless, the KCBOE continued its voluntary support of the Library, basically providing 100 percent of the funding.

In the 1950s, the school board had budget problems and asked the library to seek other sources of funding. The resulting 1957 special act was secured with the cooperation, blessing, and at the request of the KBoE because it reduced the board’s share of funding from 100 percent to 40 percent. The City of Charleston and the Kanawha County Commission provided the remaining funding.

In 1957, the modern concept of equal protection and the right to an education (which are the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013) did not exist. This law did not develop until 1982 with the Pauley case (also called the Recht Decision) which invalidated the entire local school funding system.

KCPL has been a partner in education, delivering library services to students and the entire community throughout its history. KCPL and the KCBOE have had an excellent working relationship up to the present time when funding issues have again hit the school board.

We understand why the KBoE filed suit against the state Department of Education, seeking more funding and equal treatment. KCPL is disappointed to be the main casualty in that battle. Our goal is to assure the ongoing benefits of the delivery of library services to children, students and adults, by having regular and consistent sources of funding. The KCBOE and the Legislature created KCPL and organized its funding sources. The Supreme Court has now spoken and invalidated the old arrangement.

We need to move forward to make new arrangements with all those interested in the Library including the KCBOE, the Legislature, the city, the county, and all of our patrons. KCPL has been here for 100 years.  Now is the time to shape what we will be for the next 100 years.

  • Engelbert is Library Director for Kanawha County Public Library