On Sept. 27, 2021, ImagineIF Library Trustee David Ingram sent out emails to other trustees, as well as the Flathead County commissioners, with a link to a video from a Virginia school board meeting.
The meeting was about two controversial queer-themed books in the school library, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, which have made headlines and spurred politically charged discussions about their removal from public libraries nationwide.
In his email, Ingram warned that ImagineIF’s collection included both titles, telling the trustees he was “sure it will lead to further discussion,” while advising the commissioners he intended to review the collection development policy “in the near future” in light of the national debate.
Commissioner Randy Brodehl responded that he supported actions to “fix this.”
No complaints about either title had yet been made by members of the reading public.
Around the same time, interim ImagineIF Director Martha Furman circulated an internal memo addressing the national controversy surrounding the books before ultimately deciding to wait until a formal challenge was issued to send it out to the public.
Days after Ingram first sent the Virginia school board video to trustees, his colleague on the board, Doug Adams, exchanged emails with both Ingram and the board’s chair, Heidi Roedel, about the books.
“It’s my sincere hope that someone files a complaint about these two books,” Adams wrote. “If those books get removed, and I believe they will, it’s really gonna tick [interim director] Martha off. I think we’d be wise to play ‘what if’… What if Martha resigns before we have a new director, who would we put in charge?”
“Regarding the possible resignation, that may be the opportunity to ‘temporarily’ have a manager with straight business experience hold things together as we had discussed,” Ingram responded. “MSL [Montana State Library] would not be happy.”
“I think we need to get rid of those 2 books,” Adams replied. “It’ll stoke the … fire.”
The exchange is based on emails between trustees, county commissioners and library personnel over the past year, which the Beacon obtained through a series of public records requests. In some instances, the communications between appointed public officials betray an ulterior motive shared by several board members, who characterized their positions, as well as their reason for seeking them, as being more about changing the library’s governing policies than serving as trustees of a community resource. As a result, morale has plummeted within the public library’s leadership ranks as ImagineIF struggles to recruit and retain a qualified director, having lost both its previous director and interim director to resignations in just six months.
Most recently, the board moved 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.
When ImagineIF received the formal challenges for the two books in October, professional library staff began an official review of the material in order to make a recommendation to the trustees, all of whom were required to read the book.
In early December, trustees Ingram, Adams and Roedel exchanged emails about how to handle the challenge, including a suggestion to remove all graphic novels as a genre category, as “Gender Queer” is a graphic novel, asking whether other graphic novels in the collection are “infantile” or “vulgar.”
Anticipating the possibility of litigation over the removal of books from ImagineIF’s collection, Adams and Ingram brainstormed ideas to avoid a lawsuit, public records indicate, including the possibility of creating a restricted section of the library to house the titles, as well as voting to retain the books “as long as we make a big deal that ‘intellectual freedom’ has made us slaves to ALA [American Library Association] philosophy and that we’ve been neutered,” according to Adams. “That would give us justification for changing the policy.” The two trustees also expressed their dislike of the collection development webinar provided by the Montana State Library for trustees, with Adams calling the person who led the presentation an “idiot” and both expressed a desire to find a Christian library resource to guide them. In a follow-up statement to the Beacon, Ingram said he would look at “any policy language that provided guidance” on protecting minors without interfering with adult access.
A month before the book challenge was publicly discussed by the board, Adams told trustees he had rewritten the collection policy, which he has called vague and disingenuous, ignoring the standard procedure of letting staff, a director or a chosen committee draft the policy.
The trustee manual set forth by the Montana State Library includes guidelines on collection management policy and handling complaints, stating that trustees should, as a rule, defend the right to read.
“As a trustee, you should officially adopt and support the ALA Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read statement,” according to the manual, which also instructs trustees to defend the existing selection policy during a challenge. In an interview with the Beacon, Adams said he should not be required to defend a policy he doesn’t agree with, and since last summer he has stated his intention to disassociate ImagineIF from the ALA, as well as the Montana Library Association.
On Jan. 13, the five-member board unanimously voted to retain “Lawn Boy,” but in a 3-2 decision indefinitely suspended discussion on “Gender Queer,” with plans to revisit the issue after the ImagineIF policies were changed to allow for removal.
According to Jennie Stapp, the state librarian, there is no precedent in Montana for a library board to change its collection development policy in the wake of a book challenge, and especially not in the midst of one.
Even if the policy is changed so that removal of the books no longer constitutes a violation of library policy, Stapp said there may be grounds for a lawsuit if a group or individual believes the board is engaging in censorship and violating First Amendment rights.
In an email, Adams described the current library policy as an obstacle to achieving his overarching goal.
“I’d love to rewrite the policies so that we can do our jobs unfettered,” Adams stated. “Then I’d be willing to take on a lawsuit.”
Library staff have stated concerns about the direction of the library board dating back several years, coinciding with the appointment of Roedel, the current chair, in 2018 and the subsequent appointments of Doug Adams in 2019 and Dave Ingram in 2021, all of whom were appointed against the recommendation of longtime sitting board members but at the behest of county commissioners.
ImagineIF Trustee Connie Leistiko, a former teacher, attorney and law school dean, has served on the board since 2008, and was reappointed twice. Her tenure ends this year.
Marsha Sultz, who along with Leistiko has been in the minority of most split-board votes over the last year, has served on the board since 2017. She previously worked both at ImagineIF and at the Flathead High School library.
“This library has become an absolute jewel of this community, an asset that you can’t put a price on,” Leistiko said at a recent board meeting. “To have new people come on the board and think they get to start all over again, it’s very upsetting to me.”
According to Adams, two different county commissioners requested he apply for the library board over the years, but it wasn’t until he found himself upset over the way the board handled a controversial children’s book, “Prince and Knight,” that he put his name forward. Adams said the people responsible for reading the book during storytime should be fired and in his application he stated the board had lost its objectivity and neutrality.
At a county commission meeting in 2019 to appoint a new board member, numerous people spoke in favor of reappointing incumbent member and board chair Michael Morton, including the library director, foundation president, and three trustees.
Commissioner Brodehl expressed his displeasure that those who spoke in favor of Morton did not speak about the other candidates.
“It’s important we appoint board members who we believe represent the citizens of Flathead County,” he said. “We shouldn’t base our decision on the desires of the board.”
Adams was appointed unanimously. Ingram was appointed last year to replace award-winning trustee Al Logan and has stated in emails he is “less concerned about ‘learning to be a trustee’ instead of taking care of business.”
A main business of the trustees is crafting the library’s budget, which is ultimately approved by the county commissioners. The current budget has essentially remained flat for the past six years, despite a rapidly growing population and tax base in the county, as well as a higher cost of living, making it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff.
ImagineIF staff salaries account for roughly 65% of expenditures and have increased every year for the last decade due to cost of living adjustments and step increases that are decided at the county level. However, local tax revenue has not kept pace with staffing costs. From FY18 to FY19, staffing costs grew by more than $32,000, while allotted tax revenue decreased by nearly $65,000. Through the current fiscal year, local tax revenue still falls short of FY17 numbers, while salary costs have risen 12%.
As the largest budget line, trustee Adams homed in on salaries as the most effective way to trim the library’s budget. He’s led the charge to reclassify vacant staff salaries, and has expressed a desire to freeze all current salaries. In August, Adams pushed for lowering the director’s salary, which was set by a previous trustee board at a starting salary of $84,552. Adams attempted to reduce the salary by $25,000 before settling for a nearly $10,000 cut, against the advice of the former interim director and the county Human Resources Director Tammy Skramovsky, who cited the difficult hiring climate, the increased cost of living and the salaries of equivalent library positions as reasons not to slash the pay.
Skramovsky told the Beacon it was the first time she could recall that a director level salary was lowered against the recommendation of the county’s Human Resources Department.
In September 2021, the board also voted to lower the vacated children’s librarian position salary by 11%, and opted against filling an open cataloguer position, instead directing those salary savings toward increasing wages for the materials handlers.
“The reality is the community has not really paid for the level of service that we’ve been providing over the years and there is going to be a pinch,” Furman told the library’s trustees shortly before her departure.
Revolving Director Door
On top of the underlying board tension is a visible loss of longtime staff over the last year. Four librarians holding professional degrees have left their positions at ImagineIF in favor of new jobs at different libraries, including former director Connie Behe, who resigned last summer after the board decided to renew her contract. Behe attributed her departure, in part, to hostility from both trustees and county commissioners, including heavy-handed reminders that they control both funding and the makeup of the board. She also expressed frustration at the disrespect for professional librarians, feeling her own expertise was continually disregarded and her character vilified in the public sphere.
Upon Behe’s departure, assistant director Martha Furman stepped up as interim director, but said even before she took the position that she detected hints of trouble with the board, including hesitation around her promotion to assistant director and sentiments among trustees that library staff was overpaid.
In discussions over hiring a new director, Furman’s express warnings against removing the requirement of holding a master’s degree in library science (MLS) and lowering the salaries were ignored by the trustees’ majority, who offered their own preferred requirements.
“A director without any agenda except customer service would be great,” wrote trustee Ingram, while Roedel and Adams expressed the need to hire someone willing to make their desired policy changes happen.
Furman resigned after four months.
“I reached a point where I thought no one would want to do this job,” Furman said in an interview. “In the 15 years I was there, worked in library leadership and attended board meetings, I’ve never seen a board behave like that. In every circumstance their plan was to go around me in ways that were intimidating and felt harassing. To be interim director and be faced with such blatant disregard for public library philosophy and board protocol was unreasonably stressful and a hostile environment.”
Furman’s resignation sparked an overwhelming public response, with community members writing letters to the editor and contacting trustees with their concerns.
“We can lament the loss of qualified and passionate employees, but employees don’t get to dictate to their bosses how to run a company or an organization,” Adams wrote in a response to a community member. “Unfortunately, I think this is what has gone on for many years, and the end result is they’re used to running the show unfettered and resent actually having to follow the real chain of command.”
The board’s actions complicated its months-long search for a new director.
“In complete transparency, the feedback so far has been pretty negative,” a representative from the firm hired to conduct the search for a new library director told the board in October. “Usually I get a flurry of interested applicants upon launching the recruitment, but I have yet to receive one follow-up from anyone.”
“The board is truly out of touch with what a qualified library professional is worth,” wrote one potential candidate contacted by the hiring firm. “Keep me in mind if you come across any other director vacancies at libraries where boards value their employees.”
The search ended with 11 prospective applicants; however, all applicants who held an MLS or equivalent degree later withdrew or were eliminated.
On Dec. 10, 2021, the hiring committee, which included trustees Roedel and Ingram, as well as ImagineIF Library Foundation board member Susan Burch, was scheduled to interview several candidates. In the week leading up to the interview, five of the six candidates rated highest by the hiring firm withdrew their names from consideration. Neither of the eventual finalists made the initial cut for an interview and were considered unqualified by the screening committee. However, both were added to the interview pool along with two other passed-over candidates in order to continue moving forward.
“This is a failed search,” Burch wrote in an email. “To conduct interviews with four individuals that we already decided were not qualified is a mistake. Scraping through rejected applicants is not the kind of director search our award-winning libraries deserve.”
Ingram and Roedel agreed in emails that the candidates were not competitive and did not have the desired qualities, but the committee moved forward with the interviews.
After the full trustee board interviewed three finalist candidates, they invited two of them for site visits in January, after which the board hired Ashley Cummins, despite the concerns of senior staff, the foundation director and the majority of public comment. Trustees Adams, Ingram and Roedel have all said that bringing on a director in a timely manner was a better option than spending time and money on another search that wouldn’t guarantee a more qualified candidate.
The vote to hire Cummins as the new director was a 3-2 decision, with Lestiko and Sultz voting in opposition. Stapp, the state librarian, says hiring a director without reaching a consensus is not recommended, and the “process of trying to reach consensus is almost more important than outcome of the final decision.”
Due to Cummins not holding an MLS degree, ImagineIF will no longer qualify as a certified library by the Montana State Library under the Administrative Rules of Montana (ARM) that state that the director of a library serving more than 25,000 people must have “a graduate degree in library or information science, or its equivalent.”
During the board meeting, Stapp explained the consequence of the decision to the trustees. When board chair Roedel asked if a hardship waiver could be obtained to keep the funding intact, Stapp responded that it was public record that the trustees were making the decision in full knowledge of the consequences. “The library will miss out on that state aid,” Stapp said.
Brodehl, who as a county commissioner oversees the library’s budget, disagrees with this interpretation of the law and said he has spoken to both Stapp and the governor’s office, asking them to reach out to MSL for clarification.
“The director of any agency doesn’t work in a silo,” Brodehl said. “We already have two staff that have their master’s in library science. If you take a cumulative look at the director and add in the components of the great staff we have‚ I believe the state library director has the authority to use that leadership group as an equivalent for the standard. That’s money that was appropriated by the state legislature to be spent in local libraries.”
The state aid funding is appropriated by the Montana Legislature to the State Library Commission for distribution; however, ARM regulates how it is distributed to the certified libraries.
“ARM does not give the state librarian the authority to make equivalency exceptions,” Stapp wrote in an email. “That other staff may hold similar degrees does not meet the standard and there is no allowance for this exception in ARM.”
The Jan. 6 meeting to discuss hiring the new director began with the three trustees initially denying senior librarian Sean Anderson and ImagineIF Foundation Director Charlotte Housel a seat at the table with the board members, defying years of standard meeting procedure.
After the meeting ended, an emotional Anderson and equally upset Housel unloaded on trustees over months of poor behavior and decision making.
“It is demoralizing to staff. It is, whether you want to believe it or not,” Anderson said. “I am working with these people and communicating with these people. It is damaging to us.”
“You say ‘to my knowledge none of the staff have quit because of any of my actions,’ like you’re challenging them. Do you really want that? That’s an ugly, ugly exchange that will make it hard to hire anyone,” Housel said to Adams. “It’s been said by three out of four senior staff members who left in the last year.”
“I reject that opinion,” Adams responded.
Anderson pointed to staff reports by Behe, the former director, and Furman, the former interim director, as well as former children’s librarian Ellie Newell, all three of whom explicitly cited problems with the board.
“How much more documentation do you need?” Anderson asked. “Do you need it in the public sphere? Do you need it in a letter to the editor detailing why the board is running directors and leadership out of the library? Because that does not help staff, that does not help the library, that does not help the foundation carry out a capital campaign.”
“I agree with you that it’s not working,” Adams said. “From my perspective I see both foundation and staff as utterly unwilling to work with us, and that’s where it went with [interim director] Martha.”
Board chair Roedel has expressed similar sentiments about library personnel’s unwillingness to work with the board. In a text thread obtained by the Beacon, Roedel pressed the county’s human resources director about options to temporarily close the library and lay off the entire staff.
Asked about the conversation, Roedel said she posed the question as a worst-case hypothetical about whether the library could function without a director.
“I didn’t want to go in that direction, but I’m going to ask that question,” Roedel said. “Certainly, I would not want any more staff to quit. I’m totally impressed that we can go as long as we have without a director and it’s because the staff knows their jobs so well. I might have just been having a bad day.”
For ImagineIF staff, the trustees’ sentiment underscores what they already view as the board’s lack of support.
“You keep saying, help the board, help the board,” Housel told Adams at last month’s meeting. “I want the board to help the library and the foundation to solve some of these issues.”
“It sounds like the only solution is for the board to do what they’re told to do by the foundation and staff,” Adams responded. “I would submit to you that for the past 15 years that is exactly what has happened. So the first time that you have a board that actually says ‘let’s go this direction’ it’s met with nothing but resistance.”
For Anderson, the library’s reputation has been built on a record of cooperation and trust between staff and the trustees — a trust that has been damaged.
“There’s plaques on the walls for trustee of the year,” Anderson responded. “The state trustee award is named after an ImagineIF trustee specifically because this board historically has worked in very, very close collaboration with library staff and with the foundation and that is broken now.”
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