Library Trustees Again Seek Rule Change to Qualify for State Funding

The ImagineIF Libraries Trustees sent a letter to the state requesting a change to the requirement that large libraries hire a director with a master’s degree

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

The ImagineIF Libraries Board of Trustees has renewed its request to the Montana State Library (MSL) commission to amend a standard requiring large public libraries employ a director with a graduate degree to maintain eligibility for state funding.

Under Montana Administrative Rules (ARM), public libraries must be certified by the MSL to receive a share of annual state aid. The rules for certification require that the director of any library serving more than 25,000 people holds a graduate degree in library science or an equivalent program.

In January 2022, the ImagineIF board hired Ashley Cummins as the new director of the county’s three-branch library system, making the selection even though she held neither a graduate degree in library science nor a completed bachelor’s degree.

“We have no desire to lower standards of professionalism in the industry; we simply think that it restricts what some libraries are capable of, and the net result is in fact, a lower standard,” ImagineIF trustee board chair Doug Adams wrote in the letter, which the trustees approved at their June 22 meeting.

Cummins’ hiring made ImagineIF one of just three libraries in the state — out of 82 — that do not meet the standards.

Despite having knowingly hired a director that would jeopardize ImagineIF’s state funding, several board members made in-person appeals to the state commission in 2022 asking for the standard to be relaxed. Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl also made entreaties to the state commission, calling the decision to withhold funding from the library “punitive.”

“We were aware of what we were doing when we chose Ashley to be our next director. We knew the risks and again, I don’t regret it for a second. I am not going to let money dissuade me from doing what I think is right,” trustee chair Adams told the state commission last year. “I could not be happier with the selection we made and regardless of state funding or certification, I have absolutely no regrets.”

Despite that sentiment, the trustees are again seeking to amend the administrative requirements for library directors, including by giving credit to libraries that have other staff members with graduate degrees.

“We hired the best director for our library system, and she doesn’t have [a master’s in library science],” the trustees’ letter states. “If we had simply adhered to that requirement, we would have been settling for a lesser candidate. We had an obligation to hire the best person for the job, and we did that.”

During the hiring process, the trustees were told that 70% of the initial applicants held graduate degrees, but all withdrew or were eliminated from the candidate pool, with many citing the insufficient compensation package. At the time, Adams said it would cost more money to restart the applicant search than the amount sacrificed by hiring someone who didn’t meet state certification standards.

Ashley Cummins, ImagineIF Libraries Director, attends a library board meeting in Columbia Falls on Oct. 27, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Following Cummins’ hiring, ImagineIF missed out on roughly $35,000 in funding from the state, but that appropriation is set to increase after a bill by Kalispell legislator Courtenay Sprunger was signed into law this spring.

House Bill 91, which was requested by the MSL and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte on May 19, increased the funding allocated to public libraries each year from 40 cents per capita to 50 cents per capita, and extended the distribution to accredited tribal college libraries. According to state librarian Jennie Stapp, ImagineIF’s allocation, were the library eligible, now amounts to $42,585. 

“This is a six-year statutory appropriation, and I wanted to make sure this funding is ready to go if our local library pursues the opportunity it offers,” Sprunger told the Beacon during the legislative session. Only two other Flathead Valley legislators voted for the increased appropriations — Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, and Rep. Tony Brockman, R-Kalispell. The Whitefish Community Library, which is separate from ImagineIF, will receive more than $3,500 in state aid.

The MSL is set to review several administrative rules, including the requirements for large library directors, beginning in August, with the process tentatively completed by December. One member of the commission, Carmen Cuthbertson, is also an ImagineIF trustee, which gives the local library a powerful advocate at the decision-making table, though she said she would be able to recuse herself from a vote that is considered a conflict of interest.

In the letter, Adams stated that, should the MSL maintain the standards as they are, the trustees will appeal the decision to exclude ImagineIF from funding “based on the hardship it causes.” State librarian Stapp has repeatedly told the trustees that they do not qualify for a hardship waiver, since they knew the risk of not complying with the state standard when they initiated the recruitment process back in 2021.