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Communities brace for library closures

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chris Maddison beamed as he showed off two ribbons his daughter Chloe brought home from school Monday. One ribbon was for improved grades and the second for making the honor roll.

Maddison, 32, and Chloe, an 8-year-old student at Central Elementary, visit the St. Albans Public Library every day after school to do homework, check out books and movies and surf the web.

"Daddy's really proud of you," he told her, as she whispered to him for help with a math problem.

But their daily routine could be in jeopardy as the Kanawha County Public Library struggles to find alternative funding sources after the state Supreme Court ruled last month that the Board of Education is no longer required to divert a portion of its budget each year for library services.

Up until Feb. 22, state law required the school board to provide funding to the library each year. The board's contributions made up about 40 percent of the library's annual budget.

Library officials say if the school board goes through with ceasing all funding at the end of the fiscal year June 30, they would have to close a minimum of six of the county's nine branches.

"That can't happen. I really hope they find a way," said Chris Maddison. "It's nice to bring her here, where it's quiet, away from home and the TV, so that she knows she needs to take time to focus on her schoolwork. We come here every single day."

While some school board members have voiced their support of voluntarily funding the library, no motion to help past the fiscal year has been made, and the board has thus far budgeted no money for the library for the 2013-14 school year.

"There are no good options here. They've given us 90 days to fill a void that equals $2.9 million," said Alan Engelbert, director of the Kanawha County Public Library. "There are going to be some very, very difficult decisions that are going to have to be made coming down the road very soon.

"All of our employees have dedicated great parts of their lives to providing the best service they can, and people really appreciate that and depend on it," he said.

St. Albans branch manager Melissa Burchett said the library branches' role in communities is an invaluable asset as important as the resources they offer patrons.

For instance, the St. Albans library regularly plays host to community organizations and PTO groups who use it as a meeting space, in addition to sponsoring educational events for all ages, including a "Born to Read" program tailored to children 36 months and younger.

"Here, it's very important to the community, and the community sees it that way. We have so many longtime patrons and regulars," Burchett said. "If we were to close, that would mean they'd have to travel somewhere else to get their books, and I'm not sure they'd be willing to.

"We're just continuing to carry on as we usually do and trying to give the best service possible," she said. "We need to find funding to keep all of our branches open, period."

Jennifer Sanney-Iams, 30, returned a large stack of books to the library Monday afternoon. She grew up using the local library and now regularly takes her three children, ages 2, 3, and 9.

"We're all avid readers. I've been here from the time I could walk," she said. "It's one of the hubs of St. Albans. There aren't many places left like this."

Sanney-Iams is a high school teacher and said she worries about how the loss of a library would affect education for local children.

"This is a place where our kids can go to match resources that the schools can't. Without that resource, we lose a lot of our textual references," she said. "Our kids can look up anything on the Internet, but to actually immerse themselves in a book -- that's a dying art. The faster they cut the libraries, the more lost it will become."

While school board members have suggested other options for funding, such as excess levies or support from the Legislature, Engelbert said it is unclear whether those options would pan out.

A bill was recently introduced that, if passed, would require each county school board in the state to set aside a percentage of their budget for libraries.

"The Board of Education may feel that the Legislature is going to come riding in and fill the void they have created, but the state has frozen hiring and directed all of their agencies to reduce their budgets," Engelbert said. "To suggest that a funding source is going to be found in the Legislature is, at best, unlikely."

While the library cannot sponsor a levy to get revenue from taxpayers, other entities can host one on their behalf. That includes the school board, the Kanawha County Commission and the City of Charleston.

"Say the Board of Education was to run an excess levy on behalf of the library. The funding wouldn't kick in until July of 2014. So, at best, we'd have an entire year where we're looking at this big hole in our budget," Engelbert said. "We are committed to doing as little harm to our services, our patrons and our staff as we can.

"We will manage this the best we [can] until there's some relief in sight," he said. "It will almost certainly depend on some form of excess levy election, which will have to pass."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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