Library Board Can’t Rally Votes to Appeal State Funding Loss

ImagineIF Trustees reached an impasse over whether to appeal the disqualification of $35,000 after hiring a director who doesn’t meet state certification standards

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on March 14, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ImagineIF board of trustees will not officially appeal a loss in state funding from the Montana State Library following a failed vote at its March 24 meeting, where two of the four trustees present abstained.

Several trustees, along with new ImagineIF Libraries Director Ashley Cummins, are scheduled to attend a meeting of the Montana State Library Commission in April, where ImagineIF’s state funding will be discussed. Trustee Dave Ingram stated it was his intention to ask the commission to reconsider withholding the funds, and on Thursday made a motion for the board to officially appeal the decision.

In the vote for an official appeal, ImagineIF board chair Heidi Roedel voted with Ingram in favor while trustees Connie Leistiko and Marsha Sultz abstained, citing conflicts of interest. Trustee Doug Adams was absent from the meeting, leaving the motion without the three votes needed for passage.

“My problem is that I don’t see the reason why the rule would be changed, even though I certainly regret that we’re going to lose $35,000 in our budget,” Leistiko said. “I can’t argue that we had a reason to do what we did that fits an exception to the rule and I can’t argue that I think the rule should be changed.”

The funding at issue would have come from the Montana State Library, which disperses aid to libraries that meet the state’s public library standards, which are crafted to “identify a base level of service that residents or visitors should receive wherever they are in Montana.” The annual disbursement for ImagineIF amounted to $35,731 in 2022.

Under the current standards, the director of a library serving a community of more than 25,000 people must have a master’s degree in library science (MLS) or equivalent to maintain certification from the state. In January, the trustees voted 3-2 to hire Cummins, despite her not holding an MLS. At the time, Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp told the trustees that, while libraries are able to request a deferral if they can show a hardship in meeting certification standards, ImagineIF had no hardship since they hired Cummins in full knowledge of the consequential funding loss.

Following Cummins’ hiring, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl wrote a letter to the state library commissioners asking they reconsider the funding. Brodehl specifically cited the administrative rule detailing the public library standards, which states the director must have an MLS “or equivalent.”

“Our view is that while the prospective director does not have an MLS, she does have seven years of experience serving as a library director in another state. Supporting the appointed director is an executive team that has a number of library credentials — including an MLS,” Brodehl wrote in the letter. “The education required for certification, as a body of dedicated library professionals, is more than present to effectively operate, frankly, a modest library system here in Flathead County.”

[Read the commissioner’s letter here: Montana-State-Library-re-Flathead-County-ImagineIf-Library]

Brodehl also reached out to the office of Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, which led to two meetings between Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and the state librarian. Stapp stated in an email to the Beacon that the governor’s office was not intervening but merely seeking clarification on the process for disseminating state aid.

In February, the state library commission wrote a letter to the Flathead County commissioners stating that any appeal regarding library standards must come from the library board, and invited Roedel to attend the next meeting in April.

At Thursday’s trustee meeting, Ingram expressed his desire to ask the state library commission for more clarity on their “or equivalent” standards for certification.

In emails to the Beacon, Stapp said “or equivalent” specifically refers to what the master’s degree is called — some schools refer to them as information science degrees or something similar — but “any degree from an accredited library school” meets the standard.

“That other staff may hold similar degrees does not meet the standard and there is no allowance for this exception in the Administrative Rules of Montana,” Stapp wrote.

Roedel, Ingram and Adams plan to attend the April meeting and will be able to offer public comment in lieu of representing the board on an agenda item.

The remainder of Thursday’s trustees’ meeting, which was noticeably restrained compared to recent contentious gatherings that centered on the loss of certification, as well as the resignations of longtime ImagineIF leaders and two book challenges, was largely focused on the upcoming fiscal year budget.

The board’s finance committee, made up of Leistiko and Ingram, discussed the commissioners’ desire for departments to “hold the line” on their budgets, a request made difficult due to a 2.5% cost of living adjustment for the next fiscal year, a 4% salary adjustment that went into effect in February, and inflation.

For ImagineIF, the salary adjustments amount to a roughly $50,000 increase for the next year, which, following a unanimous vote, the board members agreed to ask the county to cover.

“Basically the library’s services are people and materials and that shows up in our budget,” Leistiko said.

Ingram also relayed a desire by the commissioners for ImagineIF to begin budgeting expenses for the new Bigfork branch building before the county accepts the $1.5 million building donation, which the trustees agreed would be difficult to do ahead of operating the new building.

The overall FY ‘23 draft budget expects expenditures of $1,817,164, up 3.37% from FY ‘22. Revenue projections, which will not be finalized until the county determines property vaulations later in the year, are estimated to decrease roughly 2%, to $1,739,262.

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