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Flathead County

Approval of New Library Director to Result in Loss of Certification, Funding

ImagineIF board of trustees voted 3-2 to move forward with a candidate who does not meet public library standards, a decision that will cost Flathead County more than $35,000 in state aid

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Libraries in Kalispell on April 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees voted 3-2 at a Jan. 6 special meeting to move forward with hiring a new library director who does not meet Montana’s public library standards for a community the size of the Flathead Valley. The decision was made despite concerns expressed by staff, the ImagineIF Library Foundation and members of the public and will result in a loss of more than $35,000 in annual funding from the state.

The contentious vote means that out of 82 libraries in the state, ImagineIF will be one of just four that are not certified, according to Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp, and the only non-certified library serving a community larger than 4,000 residents.

Over the course of the months-long hiring process, the pool of candidates vying for the now-vacant position dwindled to two finalists, Abby O’Neill and Ashley Cummins, who both visited Kalispell this week and took part in a community open house on Wednesday evening.

At the outset of the Thursday meeting, trustee Dave Ingram made a motion to consider Cummins for the position of director.

Cummins is currently the library director at Russellville Public Library in Alabama, a position she has held since 2014. She started as a volunteer at the library before being asked to join as a library clerk in 2010.

“I’m what some might call an accidental librarian,” Cummins said during the open house. “After two years the library director asked if I wanted to get paid for my [volunteer] work… I’ll never forget the joy I felt that day.”

The Russellville library has a total collection of about 26,000 items and just one full-time employee, which was brought up as a concern during the trustees’ meeting. The collection at ImagineIF’s four branches exceeds 100,000 items.

In addition, Cummins is currently working to finish her bachelor’s degree and while she has expressed an intense desire to continue to a master’s degree in library science (MLS), that goal would be several years away.

This education standard was a major concern expressed by library staff, as well as ImagineIF Foundation Executive Director Charlotte Housel, two trustees and members of the public during nearly two hours of discussion.

Library advisor Ben Mason shelves books at ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on Oct. 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana State Library sets forth public library standards meant to “identify a base level of service that residents or visitors should receive wherever they are in Montana,” and by which libraries qualify for state funding.

Under the current standards, the director of a library serving a community of more than 25,000 people must have an MLS degree or equivalent to maintain certification from the state.

Neither finalist the board considered has an MLS, and with the vote to extend a job offer to Cummins, ImagineIF will lose its certification and annual aid that will amount to $35,731 in 2022

According to Stapp, the Montana State Librarian, a deferral can be granted to libraries that can show a hardship in meeting certification standards. Board Chair Heidi Roedel asked if they could apply for a deferral after the fact.

“What hardships are identified that prompted you to move forward with a recruitment where the MLS was optional, but not mandatory?” Stapp asked. “There is no hardship Madam Chair, and it’s on public record that you made this decision without that hardship in place. The library will miss out on that state aid.”

Stapp added that, were the board to decide to restart the recruitment process with the intent of hiring a candidate with the necessary qualifications, a deferral could be granted.

Senior Librarian Sean Anderson said staff has been concerned over the loss of state funding ever since the board began accepting candidates without an advanced degree during the recruitment process.

ImagineIF Library Senior Librarian Sean Anderson attends an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Trustee Doug Adams, who seconded the motion to hire Cummins, responded that he would be willing to ask the commissioners to raise the library budget in order to cover the shortfall, despite expressing earlier opposition to requesting a budget increase, calling it unsustainable. Asked after the meeting about his sudden willingness to increase the library budget, Adams said he felt comfortable doing so now that the board was “thinking outside the box,” and “showing fiscal responsibility.”

Housel expressed her own concerns with Cummins’ lack of experience with fundraising, especially with the foundation in the midst of a capital campaign for the Bigfork Library.

“Hiring somebody without a demonstrated enthusiasm or experience in those fields would really damage our ability to complete the process, it would be a big hindrance,” Housel said. 

Adams asked for clarification on how much of a director’s role should include fundraising.

“I felt like [former director] Connie [Behe] spent probably 90% of her time talking with the community, advocating and probably fundraising, as opposed to what I consider to be the core values of management: providing leadership for staff and actually being in the library,” Adams said. “I feel like too much time was spent doing that as opposed to running the library.”

Trustees Marsha Sultz and Connie Leistiko also expressed “grave reservations” over hiring Cummins.

“She will be bombarded with everything a director has to contend with: speaking to the public knowledgeably, fundraising, managing a budget, dealing with the staff, dealing with the community. I just think she will be overwhelmed and I don’t want that for her or for us,” Sultz said. “Wouldn’t it be better to hire someone who is experienced in dealing with all of these subjects than trying to teach somebody from a little library how to grow up into ours?”

“She didn’t give me any cause for concern about her ability to be in charge and manage,” Adams responded. “I have no concerns at all right now, other than the fundraising. I like an underdog and I like seeing somebody grow up and flourish.”

Anderson shared similar concerns to those expressed by Sultz, and added that while he had more faith in the other candidate, O’Neill, both candidates lacked a critical level of preparedness for the role.

Both Anderson, Sultz and Housel said O’Neill was a more qualified candidate and would more easily assume the role than Cummins, but expressed dismay that neither candidate met state certification standards.

“We face losing our accreditation, we face losing state funding, we are not in agreement about either of these candidates,” Sultz said. “I would rather start over again and try to find someone better and would entertain raising the salary to find better candidates.”

Andrew Nelson, a recruiter with CPS HR Recruiting, an agency hired to conduct the search, told the board about 70% of the initial candidates had an MLS or equivalent degree but all withdrew or were eliminated from the candidate pool. Nelson explained that candidates cited the insufficient compensation package and recent negative media surrounding the library, its trustees and the interim director’s departure as reasons for their withdrawal, and said restarting a successful search process would require an increase in compensation.

“That will cost us far more than the money we’re losing,” Adams said. “So from a budget perspective, it makes absolutely no sense at all to go back to the drawing board.”

ImagineIF Library board member Doug Adams speaks at an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Adams, Ingram and Roedel voted in favor of the hire with Sultz and Leistiko opposed. Housel, as the foundation’s representative, is a non-voting member of the board.

“When somebody walks through that library door and they get the service they want, that’s what matters to me,” Roedel said after the meeting. “We will work hard at being the best library we can and if our customers are happy and our taxpayers are happy, then the accreditation doesn’t matter.”

In a heated exchange after the meeting, an emotional Anderson confronted Adams over the board’s continued disregard for input and advice from library staff and supporters.

“You asked for our input on lowering the salaries on hiring positions. You were told by staff it was a bad idea to do that. You were told by the Human Resources Department it was a bad idea to do that. You were told by a consultant that you’re paying $30,000 that it was a bad idea to do that and you did what you want to do anyway,” Anderson said. “Today we sat down and we talked about the two director candidates. You were told by the Foundation that the first choice was a bad decision. You were told by staff that it was a bad decision, and you still did it anyway.

“Where is the trust? Whose side are you on? Where’s the support for the library?”

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