Breaking down Greensboro Public Library budget reductions

by Christian Bryant

At the Central Library in downtown Greensboro, customers are taking advantage of library services. The huge arch constructed of stone sits as the centerpiece to checkout lanes on the left and a busy children’s section to the right. Overdue fees are discussed in low hums and children spill out of their section, toting as many books as possibly without toppling over. At the top of the staircase, patrons sit around a cylindrical construction using the free internet, their gazes affixed to the computer screens in front of them.

The recommended budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, one of the more discussed topics at the June 7 Greensboro City Council meeting, produced a number of speakers from the floor with remarks regarding proposed budget reductions to the library system.

The recommended budget for Greensboro includes $13 million in budget solutions, or cuts. City Manager Rashad Young has also “identified an additional $5 million in possible reductions to the General Fund, if the city council finds it necessary,” which equates to a possible $18 million dollars cut from city services.

During a May 17 council meeting, YES! Weekly reported that Young offered several cuts for council’s consideration that were not written into the recommended budget, including eliminating two supportive positions to the Reading Railroad program, eliminating a children’s librarian at the McGirt-Horton Branch Library and closing the Benjamin Branch Library.

“Our families, children and staff are in need of those books,” said George Boschini, principal of General Greene Elementary School, in reference to the Benjamin Branch Library. “Our children need you to step forward and protect their learning interests.”

Khalulah Thompson and her son Nathan stepped forward to speak on behalf of the Vance Chavis Branch Library and its constituents.

“It’s important that we keep these doors open for [the children],” he said. “As long as there are books being published… these doors should remain open.”

In her remarks to council, Willie Taylor, library system board of trustees appointee and newly elected co-president of Friends of the Library, outlined a function of the branch libraries and how they benefit their respective communities.

“Each branch library serves a niche unlike any other,” Taylor said. “Please consider restoring the funding to the library.”

The responsiveness to the library budget cuts materialized at the June 7 council meeting but was due in part to Taylor’s organizing of library advocates at each branch within the city prior to the meeting.

After Young presented an $18 million budget-cut scenario, Taylor and several other library users gathered at the Benjamin Branch library to share their stories as to how community libraries have been beneficial and to discuss what could be done to minimize cuts and keep all branch libraries operating on May 18.

“The room would not hold all of the people who came,” Taylor said. “Some of the most thoughtful and passionate comments were made.”

At the end of the May 18 meeting, library advocates decided to start petitions to affect change in the budget consideration process. Taylor made those petitions available to the council on June 7.

Greensboro Public Library Director Sandy Neerman confirmed that with the recommended budget, a total of four positions — two unfilled and two that are filled — will be eliminated, but there will be “much less of an impact than expected,” Neerman said.

According to Neerman, library customers may not notice the changes at all, while behind the scenes, very few changes will be made.

“[There will be] a repurposing… of services to make sure we can deliver,” Neerman said.

Neerman added that ensuring the library could deliver on the city’s goals, as set forth by Young in the city manager’s budget message, played an important role in the discussion. Those goals include “creating an environment that encourages economic development, maintaining our infrastructure, promoting public safety, delivering exceptional customer service and ensuring fiscal stewardship and accountability.”

The Reading Railroad — a gutted bus, refitted with shelves of books, DVDs and audio tapes — currently sits in the Lake Brandt Park parking lot, tucked away under a heavy umbrage of trees that shields it from the sun. Child-friendly images and elaborate colors frame faces of actual smiling children on the sides and the back of the bus. Although not hard to spot in the open, fans of the portable library may see it a little less often if the council approves the recommended budget.

The bus, which provided literary services to daycares, was derailed two years ago, according to Neerman. Since then, it had been parked at the Fire Station No. 3 on Lake Jeannette Road and utilized as a temporary branch at Lake Jeannette two days a week.

The recommended budget will reduce the operational days to one day out of the week with one librarian and one volunteer providing services. Also, the Lake Jeannete Branch Library project will be put on hold indefinitely.

The silver lining: The Reading Railroad will be at playgrounds around the city on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays just for the summer to provide summer reading materials to children.