Large-scale staff cuts, branch closures and slashed program offerings are all on the table as the Kanawha County Public Library in Charleston—widely considered West Virginia’s best library system and the state’s largest—works to reshape itself after a state Supreme Court decision permanently altered KCPL’s annual funding mechanism and created a $3 million budget gap that will require the library to cut spending by 40 percent in 2014.
Last month, voters soundly defeated a spending levy that would have kept the library budget whole.
With that last hope dashed, Mike Albert, president of Kanawha County’s library board of directors, told LJ in a phone interview, steps are being taken to map out belt-tightening strategies “in a reasonable and sane fashion.” KCPL’s current $7.5 million operating budget is fully funded through June 2014, but after that, “obviously when you lose 40 percent of your budget, it’s going to have an impact,” Albert said.
For KCPL officials, this crisis is a worst-case scenario come true, following a decade of acrimony and legal battles with the local board of education. Both sides saw victories in the courts along the way, but in February, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that local school boards are no longer required to contribute part of their budget to help fund county libraries, finding that the 1957 special state act that created this mechanism was unconstitutional.
It was a resounding win for the Kanawha County school board, which first sued in 2003 to sever its financial ties to the library, arguing that having to devote money to a “non-school” purpose amounted to unfair and unequal treatment, since only nine of West Virginia’s 55 county systems were funded through this requirement. The board had been giving KCPL about $3 million annually, or about 1.25 percent of the school district’s total spending and 40 percent of the library budget. (The rest came from municipal and county tax revenues, which will remain intact.)
Where does this leave the library?
“That library has always been the gold standard,” Karen Goff, secretary of the West Virginia Library Commission, told LJ in a recent phone interview. “I don’t know how they’ll sustain it.”
Options already presented to the board include closing six of the nine existing KCPL branches, defunding the mobile library, and severing ties to several community programs. For example, the 2013 West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston, sponsored by KCPL, was canceled due to budget constraints.
In a Nov. 12 statement to the library board of directors, Albert said, “These will be difficult times, but we intend to proceed in a diligent and thoughtful manner. … This is not the kind of work any of us wants to do. We must deal with it. The KCPL will remain the largest public library in West Virginia and will continue to provide the best possible service to all of the people of Kanawha County.”
Is this education?
The Kanawha County Board of Education first went to court in 2003, filing a civil suit challenging the state funding formula, while the library argued that money was not being diverted from education, because the library is itself a form of education.
A circuit court, in a summary judgment, found the 1957 special act constitutional. The board appealed the decision, sending it to the state Supreme Court for the first time. The school board won in 2006, but the decision was stayed to give the West Virginia legislature a chance to amend the school aid formula.
The legislature did so, revising the law to incorporate language stating that libraries serve a “legitimate school purpose.” But that didn’t satisfy the schools, and a new civil action was filed in circuit court. This time, the board of education won in the lower court, and KCPL appealed.
“I thought the legislative attempt to try and fix the statute was pretty weak,” said Robert Bastress, a law professor at West Virginia University who followed the litigation closely. Apparently the Supreme Court agreed, though not the Chief Justice, who dissented on the grounds that the legislature took the necessary corrective action and presented a proper mandate.
Although a library tax levy to make up the shortfall was put on the ballot for November (and ultimately went down to defeat), the library did not wait to see the result before trimming spending: As soon as the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Feb. 22, KCPL began some budget reductions, including eliminating some staff positions through attrition.
No plans to follow suit
Although the Supreme Court cited nine county boards of education affected by the legislature’s 1957 special act, Goff, at the state library commission, said that seven, besides Kanawha County, are directly affected by the ruling.
Those seven school boards could now challenge their requirement to channel part of their budget into funding for the local library networks. But Goff told LJ that she believes few, if any, of those boards will take advantage of this opening.
A small sampling seems to support Goff’s opinion.
“It was never a consideration,” Michael L. Queen, president of the Harrison County Board of Education, said of attempting a legal challenge to sever its financial contribution to the library network there. “We’ll continue to fund our libraries at the level which we have always funded” them.
Tim Yeater, president of the Wood County board of education, echoed that sentiment. “There is no one even considering not financing” the library, he said. The schools there contribute about $450,000 over a five-year period—a small slice of the district’s $17 million budget for the same time frame.
In Raleigh County, school officials told a local newspaper that they, also, have no intention of trying to end their financial support of the local library.
But Goff cautioned that legal safeguards are no longer in place to prevent these school boards from changing their minds down the road.
“Nobody’s breathing easy,” she told LJ. “Board of education funding is now voluntary—and not mandated. And boards of education are elected.”