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Funding relationship for public libraries used by schools complex

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Riverside High School's library houses all the standard amenities for school-based learning: a hefty collection of young adult fiction, a dozen computers - somewhere in storage there are 30 copies of "The Catcher in the Rye" for classroom use.

But at this high school library red cardboard hearts are taped to the walls bearing Valentine's Day messages from small children - Lauren loves "books to read" and Ben loves "vedeos" and the "compuder." And there are programs geared to adults and seniors, like a weekend genealogy workshop.  

That's because this library, tucked into the side of Riverside High, is also a full-service branch of Kanawha County Public Libraries. In addition to being the school library, it doubles as the community library for Belle and its neighboring communities.

It's been that way since the school opened in 1999, and Cathy Pierce, the branch's manager, said the arrangement, though odd on the surface, has always worked nicely. The school provides the amenities, the library system puts up the materials and the bulk of the staff, and the result is a bigger, better library for students and the public alike. In January, 7,151 people visited Riverside's library, checking out 4,680 materials.

"The people who come here, the general public, are used to it," Pierce said. "They will sit next a student at a computer in the middle of a class if one is here."  

The strangeness of the arrangement is underscored, though, by a recent state Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the 1957 outlining the parameters of the relationship between the county school board and the public library system. The court ruled that the part of the law that forced the Kanawha County school board to help fund the library system through its property tax is unconstitutional - leaving the library scrambling to come up with that money, nearly 40 percent of its operating budget.

But while that ruling freed the school board from one element of its generations-old relationship with Kanawha County Libraries, the two public entities are still intertwined in a heap of other ways. It remains to be seen whether and how that relationship will change moving forward.

Alan Engelbert, director of the library system, said the library and school board have "enjoyed a long and close relationship."

When the library was first established, in 1913, tax support came entirely from the Charleston Independent School District, the precursor to today's school system.

The recently contested 1957 law was created when the school board and library system approached the Legislature together, Engelbert said, looking for a more stable source of funding for the library. The new law required the County Commission and the city of Charleston to put up some funds as well - the library has since been funded by all three.  

But even as the school system was relieved of the bulk of its obligation to the library system, it retained some control over the library, and the relationship between the two remained close. The school board is still the designated "fiscal agent" for the library system - all library employees are classified as Department of Education employees for payroll purposes, among other things - and the library system's board of directors is appointed by the school board.

Harry Reustle is the school system's treasurer; Jim Withrow is the board's attorney.  Both are members of the library's board.

Withrow said last week that this relationship hasn't been awkward so far - Withrow always excuses himself from the library board's discussion of the lawsuit with the school board so far - but he wasn't sure how the arrangement would progress.

The ties don't end in the bureaucracy: In addition to the situation at Riverside, two other public libraries are situated on land that is adjacent to public schools. More than 40 school libraries use the public library's computer cataloguing system which, Engelbert wrote in an e-mail "was intended to establish a seamless information system for all residents of Kanawha County at all stages of their lives, whether they were involved in formal education such as K-12 or were pursuing life-long education."

The library has some 50,000 books that it loans to public libraries to supplement their collections. The mobile library, or "bookmobile," stops at seven schools on a regular basis.

The state Supreme Court ruling didn't dissolve any of these ties, only released the school system from the funding mandate, but the ruling could have ramifications in that sphere as well. Along with a slew of other cost-saving measures, the library board is examining the services the library system provided for the student population that don't benefit all library patrons, though no concrete decisions have yet been made.

And the library system is still requesting funding from the school system on a voluntary basis - a funding relationship similar to the one in 81 other public library systems across West Virginia.

The state Board of Education is encouraging all local school boards to provide some funding for their public libraries if they can afford to do so, even the eight other counties that, like Kanawha, were freed from obligatory funding relationships with their local libraries by the recent court decision.

The school board will take up the issue at its 4 p.m. meeting today.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.

 


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