V I E W P O I N T S
When you run a small, independent newspaper in a rural county, people tend to call you up with random questions. Some I’ve gotten are, “Is this the place they’re giving away the cheese?” (Wrong number); “If I want to keep the house and I want child support, but I want to kick that sumbitch out...” (Wrong number, mysteriously caused by the fact I have the same first name as one of the two local attorneys); and “How do you make a living running a small, independent newspaper in a rural county?” (Answer on a good day: “Wanna buy an ad?” Answer on the other kind: Hang up, sobbing.)
But the question I’m here to tell you about today is this one:
“How come the Dade County Public Library is closed on Mondays?”
This question has morphed some over the years. The first time I got asked it, it was: “How come the library is only open three days a week?”
But the answer remains the same: Because the Dade County Board of Education shot it through the heart, and has never made things right.
Yup, here we go again! Time for The Planet to climb back on that same old soapbox and beat that same dead horse. If you don’t want to hear me explain how it is that the organization in charge of educating the county became the organization that did its damnedest to stamp out books and learning in Dade, please skip down the homepage feed to something you might enjoy more. There’s a body in a field three items down that might grab you; or scroll down a little further for one of The Planet’s yuk-filled advice columns, featuring Socrates, Dear Abby and a Huddle House waitress named Charlene, plus occasional cameos by Hitler and my dog Rosie. (I like to think there’s something for everybody in The Planet!)
But stay here if you want to know why the library is closed Mondays, and forgive me if I spit when I talk. The Dade Board of Education’s shameful treatment of an institution it would seem naturally and existentially bound to nurture is the big pus-oozing zit I can’t help seeing every time I look into Dade County’s face. I will shut up about it when the B of E mends its evil ways or when this keyboard is pried from my cold, dead fingers.
Why am I harping on it now, though? It’s because Dade County just finalized its fiscal year 2018 budget and the Dade B of E holds public hearings beginning next week on its own. The first one is Thursday at noon. Not that it matters if you go or not. Bitter experience has shown that for the school board, public hearings are a formality only.
For most of our local institutions, including the city and county governments, public hearings are also a formality only, but that’s because the public doesn’t show up. (The public stays home, and later bitches about it on The Village Idiot.) For the Dade Board of Education, they’re a formality because the public shows up and the board stares coldly at the public like the public had a booger hanging out of its nose until the public shuts up; then the board goes ahead and does what it was fixin’ to do before the public so rudely interrupted.
This was richly demonstrated in 2012, when the Board of Education and its then-superintendent (who was as fit to educate the young as Hitler or my dog Rosie) had the bright idea of saving the system $38,000 a year by finking out the county and the city governments and murdering the library in the first place.
Historically, the city, county and school system--the three local taxing entities--had shared library support about equally. But the then-superintendent paid the big bucks to budget advisors and education lawyers who told him there was no legal imperative on the system to support the library. The then-board members agreed there was no connection they could think of between education and the library--two of them, I recall, pronounced it “liberry”--and bang, a third of the library’s funding disappeared overnight.
Can you tell I’m still mad about it? Well, so were a lot of other people. It was standing room only at the two public hearings. The board didn’t give a crap. Teenaged girls cried, adults begged and old ladies shook their canes. Board members sat there impervious, looking like they wouldn’t blink if you stuck pins in them (and believe me, one simply ached to); then they went ahead and voted to assassinate the library anyway.
Whenever I describe that terrible July I find myself using terms like “assassinate,” “shoot down” and “death blow.” These terms are not too strong. Immediately, the library had to lay off staff, including a 20-year veteran, and close its doors all but three days. It managed to stay open at all through a fundraiser sponsored by Friends of the Library, which lasted through Christmas and which was generously supported by a community coalesced in horror at the actions of the school board.
I was writing it all down then and I remember it all now. But these days I seem to be the only one who does! Sometimes I get the idea even the library wishes I would shut up about it. Here’s a revisionist history of that period I got from an informational handout at the front desk of the library itself, on the occasion of the library winning a prestigious national award:
“In 2011, a tornado hit Dade County, and the storm’s impact resulted in budget cuts to the library in 2013 and 2014. Yet rather than see the library reduce hours, donations came pouring in, raising $52,777 over a period of two years, until government funding could be restored.”
What a muddle! Yes, the library suffered in the tornado, but that was the year before. The fund drive was to make up for the B of E disaster. “Rather than see the library reduce hours?” It closed all but three days. “Until local government funding could be restored”? The hell it was. It never has been!
Maybe it was a simple mistake from an out-of-town PR writer who couldn’t grasp the weirdness of the library in our town being murdered by our local school system. But for me, it was like reading a signed statement by a battered wife about how she’d walked into a door.
Or maybe it’s because the battered wife is still dependent on the abusive husband for support. The Dade Board of Education paid $0 to the library for two years, then--having finally given the bad superintendent his long-deserved shove--in grudging increments chipped in until it was paying half its original contribution. But there is still no legal instrument that forces it to help with the library at all, and the B of E’s FY 2018 budget contains not a dime more for the library than it did this year but is frozen at $20,500.
Meanwhile, the city and especially the county have had to take up the slack, and with that, and the begrudged $20K from the B of E, the library has gradually increased its open hours. Dade County increased its share for FY ’18 to $73,700 from $69,500. The city of Trenton has a calendar-year budget and may chip in more when it makes it 2018 budget, but its 2017 contribution was $48,000.
(Or it may contribute less. There is still no legal obligation on any of the taxing agencies to fund the library, so that library board volunteers must go begging each year to each of the three entities. We don’t have room for that here, but for such an essential service as the library, doesn’t that seriously, like, suck?)
The irony that strikes me as I go from county to city to school board meeting is that the two noneducational entities, the city and county, treasure their library, speak of it with pride and reverence, and support it as fully and more fully than they can afford; while the school board, the entity that’s supposed to promote books and learning, continues sticking its finger up its nose and saying, “Liberry? Whaffer we want us ary ole liberry?”
Of course, board members never say exactly that. What they say is they’re broke. And I’m sure it’s hard making budgets at that level. But I sit through enough of their meetings to know $38,000 would be pocket change for them.
The new superintendent, Dr. Jan Harris, a smart and capable leader, recently contacted me to point out a mistake I’d made in a Planet article: I’d transposed a $ sign in my notes into a 3, so that instead of writing a piece of bookkeeping software for Central Office cost $14,000, I’d typed $314,000. It was an honest mistake but I didn’t catch it. I get so glazed over by the huge figures bandied around at board meetings, what’s $300,000 here and there?
That $14,000 is still a lot for bookkeeping software but there was some other amount at that meeting (only a few thousand so I didn’t bother writing it down) for a program Dr. Harris said helped board members make sure during a meeting that they reached the goals they’d set for it. I remember grinning at that one, thinking I do the same thing by jotting a checklist on the back of an envelope.
But mega-pricey specialized computer stuff is par for the course in local gummint. I remember the county spending $10,000 on a program to generate business licenses, and at practically every commission meeting the 911 guys request massive amounts of SPLOST money for communication system upgrades. I run The Planet, lurk on Facebook and improve my French watching Belgian YouTube cartoons on a $250 laptop; Trenton just paid $6607.60 for two to go in their police cruisers, $3K apiece plus special mounts to keep them from jiggling.
Of course all this is SPLOST, sales tax money, and there are rules how that can be spent; but it can be spent on books and computers, which the library always needs. The board also puts untold amounts of money into salary supplements for athletic programs. Maybe some tiny fraction of that could be siphoned off for library support?
I’m not trying to tell the school board what to spend its money on. But I am saying that 75 percent of Dade property tax goes to the board in school tax, its budget is monstrous compared to the county and city’s, it could, too, afford to pay its share of the library’s local support, and it by God ought to. This is its community, too, and its mandate to promote books, learning and civilization as we know it is even more than the city’s or county’s.
That’s my point and I’ve made it possibly a million times so I will now STFU (until the next time), after I say this: When I talked to Dr. Harris about the school board’s disappointing library contribution on this year’s budget, she said: “I’m not a judge. I’m not in a position to say what’s wrong or right.”
Who is,then? Hitler or my dog Rosie? It was the bad old superintendent who gave the board the idea of gunning down the library, and it’s probably going to have to be the good new one who cleans up Dodge.
I hope to God that happens! And maybe people will stop asking me the question about why the library’s closed on Mondays. Hell, I’m still working on an answer for the one about the cheese.