By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Dade County Schools Superintendent Shawn Tobin last week told the Cherokee Regional Library’s board of directors he would recommend cutting funding for the Dade County Library 100 percent from the school system’s fiscal year 2013 budget.
Cherokee Regional responded immediately with a June 27 press release saying that losing the school system’s support – $37,725.60 last year – constituted a 31-percent cut the Dade branch library, already desperately underfunded, may not be able to survive.
The press release said the school board cut may result in the state also pulling funding. Cherokee Regional’s assistant director, Darla Chambliss, explained by phone the concept of “maintenance of effort” – that the state requires libraries to be supported by the communities they serve, and will not itself ante up otherwise.
Furthermore, she said, the library had already cut hours of service, beginning this week, from 45 to 30 hours of service a week, the minimum allowable to be considered by the state a public library branch. The loss of nearly one-third of its local funding would cripple the library beyond that point.
The press release said the library – ironically, poised to move into its newly expanded and renovated permanent building in August – may react to the cut by folding altogether. “We will in fact, either open only for two days per week with no programming as a service outlet, a far cry from a branch library,” Ms. Chambliss said in the release. “Or, we will close the beautiful new library completely.”
A grassroots local movement spearheaded by Wildwood’s Katie Kasch sprang up in reaction to Tobin’s announcement, and at a special called meeting of the Dade Board of Education on Monday – not convened on the subject of the library but to deal with routine business– perhaps 20 protesters crowded into the boardroom holding up signs that read, “I am here for the public library.”
The school board’s rules preclude public input at special called meetings, and the library proponents did not in fact attempt to speak. “We’re ex-teachers and we follow the rules,” commented one attendee, Linda Wilson, after the meeting. Ms. Wilson had been sitting with another retired Dade educator, Donna Street, who until Saturday chaired the local library board.
Superintendent Tobin did not address library matters at the meeting except to appoint Davis assistant principal Dottie Abercrombie to represent the school system on the regional library board – an appointment whose meaning is unclear if the school board pulls out of fiscal participation in the library.
But he made numerous mentions of the school system’s ongoing reduction in funding from the state, as well as federal aid slashes that he said loom ahead. He bemoaned the sacrifices the system has already had to make, such as the loss of its drivers’ education program and some staff reductions. “If we had this money, we wouldn’t have to be making these cuts,” he said.
Board of Education members David Powell and Jeff Forester said after the meeting that the library cut is something the board is still looking at. Powell said when dumping the library’s funding was first discussed, the board had not envisioned it would mean closing the facility’s doors.
Cherokee Regional Library Director Lecia Eubanks in a separate release explained the tortuous process of maintaining local support for the four public library branches in two counties under her purview. It entails extracting money from nine separate taxing authorities that are not always that willing to part with it.
Nor, she has made it clear in the past, are they legally obliged to pony up, or to do so in any specified amount. The branches depend on local tax dollars for 90 percent of their operating budgets, but no one of the taxing authorities is charged with ultimate responsibility for making sure they get it.
Historically, though, Dade’s three authorities – city, county and B of E – have seemed to share the burden among themselves without demur. Ms. Eubanks was able to find figures for as far back as 1975, when they were as follows: BOE, $2,976; Dade, $2,000; Trenton, $1,000.
“Isn’t it interesting that the Dade Board of Education gave the most money in support of the public library in its early years?” she remarked.
In 1997, that ratio had changed: BOE, $19,975; Dade, $33,500; and Trenton, $7,181. In 2011, before the recent series of cuts, the figures were BOE, $37,726, Dade, $69,500; and Trenton, $30,536.
“Here is what we are facing in FY2013,” wrote Ms. Eubanks. “BOE, $0, Dade, $64,500 and Trenton, somewhere between $15,000 - $30,000.”
In Dade, the Trenton City Commission was the first to try scuttling the library, slashing it 100 percent from its 2011 budget. It later relented, if only partially and only provisionally.
The Dade County government itself, which now furnishes the bulk of the library’s funding, has been more dependable, and indeed County Executive Ted Rumley said last week Dade will not let the library close altogether, even if it means pulling out of the Cherokee Regional system and having a small county library as some south Georgia counties do.
Rumley said he is referring questions about the library’s immediate peril to board of education members. “That’s the board’s call,” he said. “Anybody that calls me, I tell them to talk not to Mr. Tobin but to the people they elect to do the job.”
He said the school board had to do what it had to do to make ends meet, but: “To me, the library was always a part of education, a big part of education, because students can go to the library when they can’t go to school.”
The school board is expected to vote on its final budget at its July 23 meeting.