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‘Shortchanging’ the library

Users, staff say good schools are linked to good libraries

(Published April 9, 2001)


Staff Writer

The District’s libraries have computers, but patrons and librarians say there are too few that must be shared by library users and staff. Here, the Woodridge Regional Library’s makeshift computer setup is an example of how the city’s libraries have had to “make do” with available resources.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams is being criticized by D.C. Public Library advocates who claim he does not see the inextricable link between good public schools and library resources.

The city government has fallen into a mindset of getting by with the bare minimum when it comes to the library and should make a significant investment in the facilities now while the city is prospering, said Alexander M. Padro, a member of the D.C. Board of Library Trustees and an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2.

"We never shifted out of the mindset that we have no money to spend on services – the only exception being the school system," Padro said. "There's been a huge amount of cash given to the school system ... in operating funds alone."

The mayor has proposed a $26 million operating budget for fiscal 2002 for the library system. The library received about $25 million and $23 million, respectively, in fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2000 in local dollars. Library officials requested $27.9 million in operating funds for fiscal 2002.

"I find it interesting that the ‘education mayor’ puts such limited resources into what is the heartbeat of an educated community," said Willie Lynch, executive assistant to Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, who chairs the council committee that oversees the city’s libraries. He said there needs to be a bigger increase in the budget "given the magnitude of maintenance problems" and lack of updated books.

Padro said he is upset that Mayor Williams did not mention the library as a priority in his annual State of the District address last month, despite expressing support on other occasions.

"It’s discomforting that [Williams] hasn’t made ... public acknowledgment of the fact that our libraries are in bad shape," Padro said.

Williams’ budget proposal forwarded to the city council, characterized by his administration as being "back to basics," does not include any of the five requested "enhancement packages" that library supporters are seeking. These include $569,000 for books and materials, and money to hire more technology staff, one Youth Adult Specialist for each of the full-service branch libraries, and two special police officers to patrol the branch system.

A spokesman for the mayor said that few enhancement projects were funded in any government agency for fiscal 2002, in part because of a federally mandated requirement that the District must hold $150 million in operating budget reserves.

"The fiscal year 2002 budget I sent to the council is not about a lot of fancy new programs or lots of new spending. It’s about doing more with what’s available," Williams said.

"This budget does not include one cent of spending that is contingent on unallocated savings, unspent reserve funds, or changes in federal law," he said.

The library’s "book fund," money allocated in the budget specifically for buying new books, is one example cited for how the city has failed to even keep up with inflation in its funding for the public library system during the past 10 years. The book fund totaled about $1.9 million for fiscal 1991 and the proposed amount for fiscal 2002 is about $2.2 million, said Martin Carmody, chief financial officer for the D.C. Public Library.

"In real dollars, the purchasing power has actually declined by hundreds of thousands of dollars, when adjusted for inflation," said Mary E. Raphael, director of the D.C. Public Library, during her testimony March 27 before Chavous’s council committee.

Raphael said she understands why none of the proposed enhancement packages made it through to the city council.

"The government has a great number of needs – all of us want a bigger piece of the pie," she said. "I don’t think [Williams] thinks our programs aren’t worth supporting."

But Padro said that "it’s something of a smack in the face to the board that special requests were totally ignored … They’ve got money to spend on just about everything else."

He said that the government has forgotten that the libraries are an integral part of education, and that citizens rely on the libraries’ services to be of good quality, readily available and housed in respectable buildings.

"I’m appalled that the city has been grossly under-funding our libraries," said Padro, who is serving his first year on the Library Board of Trustees.

Malan S. Strong, president of the D.C. Public Library Foundation, said that a "very generous budget increase" would not be too much to ask considering that the amount of operating funds in the budget equals about a half-percent of the total city budget.

The foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides materials, programs and services to the D.C. Public Library, a city agency.

"I find it very embarrassing to be living in a community whose city government has consistently short-changed its citizens when it comes to providing for a vibrant, up-dated, fully-funded and therefore appreciated public library system," Strong said.

The library is seeking more outside funding and private sector partnerships than it used to before hiring a director of development, Raphael said.

The agency receives federal and private grants and donations, which can add up to more than $100,000 per fiscal year, Carmody said.

Still, it cannot be dependent on outside funds. "The private sector is looking for a return. They don’t want you to be at a level where you’ll go down the drain without them," she said.

Before investing in anything, most private foundations first look to see how much support there is for the facility in the government and community. If it’s well supported, it’s easier to get more private funding, Raphael said.

"We have needs that the government could support more strongly," she said. "But tax dollars and government are not the answers to all the needs that the library has."

The Francis A. Gregory Library in Southeast and the Woodridge Regional Library in Northeast will increase their own programs and materials through two $800,000 bequests from Elizabeth Holden, a longtime resident of Southeast and a library patron.

No more than 30 percent of the Holden bequest can be used on capital improvements to the Gregory Library, said Lessie Owens Mtewa, the branch librarian.

Mtewa said that the Library Foundation, which is handling the Holden bequest, said she can start using money for adult and children’s programs and to enhance the branch’s book collection. She also plans to request 15 computers and use some of the donation to redesign or add an addition to the building, and add a wrought iron fence around the property.

But not all branches receive such contributions.

"If the materials in the D.C. public libraries are not fully funded and considered of value, education of our citizens is lessened," Strong said at the recent city council hearing.

Mtewa said that librarians have "learned to manage" with a historically inadequate budget. While some activities are contingent on budget funds, her branch also has an active "friends of the library" group, which started a monthly lecture series that included the manager of Allfirst Bank and a lesson on the history of the Anacostia River. As in many other branches, the staff at the Gregory library holds book discussions for young people and computer training for those 50 and older.

Mtewa has worked for the D.C. Public Library for 33 years, and remarked that while there are more education-related programs than there were 30 years ago, there are not as many as there were just 10 years ago.

She also said the staffing is not adequate for what she hears the community saying it wants – extended hours, including Sundays, and more help with the computers and with researching. There are eight staff members at the Gregory library, including Mtewa.

Chavous is disappointed that the mayor’s proposed budget increase for the library is so low, especially since some of the facilities are in "deplorable condition," Lynch said.

"While we expected to have a full facilities plan by the end of this fiscal year, we knew that waiting until that plan was in place made no sense," Raphael said at the city council hearing. "There is no question that our buildings have been seriously neglected over the past decades. The cost of that neglect is that all of our 27 facilities...need attention."

Raphael said she sees this year’s capital budget request as the first of a 10-year program to rebuild the libraries, and she hopes to renovate three facilities every year.

The Watha Daniel branch in Shaw will undergo construction in 2003; the Tenley-Friendship branch in Northwest and the Benning branch in Northeast are facilities that will be torn down and rebuilt on site. They are expected to be reopened in 2004, assuming that they receive the necessary budget money and stay on the fastest possible time schedule, Raphael said.

The mayor proposed $6.7 million in design money for the three branches and for the redesign of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the main library at 901 G St. NW which houses the administrators and Washingtoniana section of the library. Designing the new MLK library is expected to take two years, followed by a few years of construction.

Chavous’s committee has scheduled the markup for the agency’s fiscal 2002 budget request at noon April 12 in the council chamber at One Judiciary Square, 441 Fourth St. NW.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator