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School Board Ponders District’s Ownership of Library

An ad-hoc committee of the whole has been formed to look at the big picture for the Phoenixville Public Library’s future.

In front of an audience of library employees, board members and volunteers, Phoenixville Area School Board discussed the future of the facility.

An ad-hoc library committee will hold its second meeting tonight, Feb. 1, after an initial meeting last Wednesday. The committee was formed in response to a ruling by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS), which ruled in November that employees are school district employees.

Board Member David Ziev is heading up the committee. Actions taken so far by the board consisted of routing all major human resources decisions through the district, rather than the library’s Board of Trustees, and having employees and volunteers complete the same background checks required of all school employees. All but one, who was on vacation, completed the checks as of last Wednesday’s meeting.

The first committee meeting kicked off by placing the district’s mission statement side by side with the library’s. Board members were asked whether or not the statements lined up.

Jan Potts, who serves as the school board’s vice president, said the district’s statement is more specific, geared toward educating students. The library’s is more focused on the community as a whole, she said.

“I don’t think they particularly match,” Potts said.

When asked if the Phoenixville Public Library is an essential service to the community, all board members nodded in agreement. The next question Ziev posed during his presentation was whether or not the district should own the library.

Dr. Dan Cushing, board secretary, took the discussion back to the original PSERS ruling, questioning what kind of power it gave the school district and its administrators over the library and its employees. Cushing said he read the ruling in a way that indicated the district already had control—through the appointment of the library’s Board of Trustees, and by having two school board members and Superintendent Dr. Alan Fegley serve on that board.

“I don’t see anywhere where this board can impose its will in any other way than that on the library,” Cushing said.

Ziev said an interpretation on that point could be added to a stash of other issues to examine, and explained that the district solicitor should be consulted. Cushing asked that the solicitor be brought to the next ad hoc committee meeting to answer the question directly and in public, rather than in a private conversation with a board member or administrator.

Members agreed to invite the district solicitor to the Feb. 1 meeting to address the question of how much power is granted by the PSERS ruling, and specifically whether it gives the district more power over the library’s operations and employees.

Ziev presented on the library’s funding from the district, an issue that he said already drives a lot of discussion. From the 2007-2008 school year until this school year, the district has given the library 0.66 to 0.67 percent of the general fund budget, ranging from $457,383 to the current allocation of $508,326. Library funding was frozen at the 2010-2011 amount last year during a difficult budget season for the district.

“Historically, our debate has always been about the cost,” Ziev said.

Board Member Kenneth Butera asked how other libraries operate within the Chester County Library System. Library Executive Director John Kelley was asked whether or not the county library system would be interested in purchasing the library.

“I don’t think that would be an issue that would be entertained by the county library system,” Kelley told the board.

Susan Mostek, executive director of the Phoenixville Public Library Foundation and director of development and marketing for the library, said the district serves as the taxing authority for the library and all public libraries are funded through a taxing authority. A 1995 court ruling said school districts fit into the definition of municipalities and can act as that taxing authority, Mostek explained. 

"That's why we exist the way we exist," Mostek said.

Kelley said approximately 180 school districts throughout Pennsylvania are taxing authorities for public libraries, and some Carnegie libraries, like in Phoenixville, and others that are not.

Ziev said the situation in Phoenixville is unique because the district not only serves as the taxing authority but also owns the library building. He said big questions would arise if the board decides the district doesn’t want to own the library any longer. He asked whether or not the district could do that, how the district could ensure the library continues to be successful if that happens and how it could be accomplished.

Board President Paul Slaninka said the board needs to remember advice from the Community Budget Advisory Committee, which recommended three options—all involving distancing the district from the library. He said he doesn’t know enough about the ramifications of owning or not owning the library for the district, however, and said it may be difficult to keep the library successful without the school’s involvement. 

“It’s a tough decision,” Slaninka said.

Board Member Betsy Ruch said everyone at the table should be polled on whether or not they want to own the library going forward, and then decisions could spring from that consensus. A vote was not taken on that matter.

Potts said she’d like to see a cost-benefit analysis to gauge how much a full takeover of the library would cost, and the financial ramifications of any decision the ad-hoc committee and the district may make.

The committee decided to ask the solicitor three questions for the Feb. 1 meeting:

  • What the PSERS ruling means and whether or not it grants the administration and school board more power over the library than just appointing and providing representatives on the Board of Trustees
  • Whether or not the district could abolish or end the library, including a look at the Carnegie agreement
  • Whether or not the library can be set up as a non-profit enterprise
  • Whether or not the district could completely divest itself from the library

In addition, the committee voted 7-0, with Kevin Pattinson and Irfan Khan absent, to agree that the library is important to community and that the board did not wish to completely abolish it.

Board Treasurer Josh Gould said he won't be able to make the Feb. 1 meeting and wanted to get his opinion out there on whether or not the district should continue to own the library. 

"The library should remain a component unit," Gould said, as it was in the PSERS ruling.

Mostek said during the public comment period that she didn’t see why things had to be completely different due to the PSERS ruling.

“I don’t know why things have to change, necessarily,” she said, noting that she was speaking as a taxpayer.

A volunteer from the library said the board seems wishy-washy, going back and forth on whether or not it wants to own the library and what that ownership means.

“You can’t make up your minds and stick with it,” the volunteer told the board.

The next meeting of the ad-hoc library committee is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 1 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the district administration’s building. For more information, visit the district’s website

Lynn Jusinski February 01, 2012 at 02:03 PM
Important: Just received word that tonight's committee meeting is canceled.
Rebekah Ray February 01, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Of course the School District should straighten up and recognize the value of LIFELONG LEARNING. Have we elected some people to the schoolboard who really have such tunnel vision as to think that they only have obligations to serve people from age 6-16 (or maybe 18)??? The library serves everyone in the entire school district, whether or not they currently are in taxpayer supported public education, . It prepares children to be successful in school with an amazing array of programs, and helps adults to stay current in their literacy and computer skills so as parents they can assist and encourage students, not to mention keeping up their own skills. The school Board might be unpleasantly surprized to discover how much of the good will and support they receive derives from their long relationship with the public library, if they engage in talk demonstrating a lack of appreciation for the benefit that relationship has had for public education in Phoenixville.
Karen Hartman February 01, 2012 at 04:13 PM
The Library does a great job serving the community as it is. Except for theSchool District's HR serving the Library in that area, I think the Library should continue to function as it has.
Bud Horenci February 01, 2012 at 06:32 PM
"PSERS is an agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who administers the pension plan for Pennsylvania’s public school employees." OK...so PSERS says library employees are "school district employees". What the heck does that mean and where does PSERS get authority to make a declaration like that? Are they elegible to participate in PSERS or are they employees? Unless the school district hired them and pays them through the school district payroll, then they're NOT employees but apparently can still participate in the retirement plan. And how can anyone make the leap that now the school district "owns" the library? Where the heck did that declaration come from? PSERS can't possibly be authorized to make that determination. All they're supposed to do is mange the retirement program. I can hardly wait to hear answers.
Anne Cummins February 01, 2012 at 06:36 PM
Absolutely - the school district is the taxing authority for library funding. How would the library fund itself without a taxing authority? Would it then be solely dependent upon donations and fundraising? That is too precarious of a situation to place such an asset to our community. The library is an amazing community asset - a great draw and benefit for families to the downtown area.
Bud Horenci February 01, 2012 at 06:54 PM
Gee Anne. Looks like you have more answers than the school board who is asking their legal representative to clarify ownership and influence and didn't even know that the library employees were school district employees. Must be nice.
Daniel Pipes February 01, 2012 at 08:26 PM
The library should be a 501 c3 nonprofit , taxed exempt and funded by the people who use it.
Doug February 01, 2012 at 08:53 PM
In that case, the schools themselves should be funded by the people who use them.
Bud Horenci February 01, 2012 at 09:53 PM
I accept your offer Doug. But seriously, if you can't distinguish between children from the PASD who have shool libraries and the multitude of people who aren't children, are not residents of PASD or even Chester County for that matter, who use the Phoenixville Library for free, then any resonable discussion isn't possible.
Nathan Rein February 01, 2012 at 11:07 PM
I doubt we'd still have a library much longer if that were the case.
Daniel Pipes February 01, 2012 at 11:57 PM
Like the city of Philadelphia, school taxes as with the city taxes could no longer fund the libraries therefore they closed them.The Public Schools in Philly are $80 million in debt. Bud is correct when he states that PSER cannot dictate to the district that they are the owners of a library. I have a solution; get the occupiers to occupy the library 24/7, then the library can stay open around the clock, get rid of the salaries and have the library board oversee the the whole thing. It will give the occupy movement jobs and something constructive to do with their time. lol
Richard A Breuer February 02, 2012 at 05:51 PM
The school district owns the library because that was the deal between Carnegie, who funded the library construction more than 100 years ago and the school district.
Bud Horenci February 02, 2012 at 07:04 PM
Thanks Richard. Is the document that grants ownership to the PASD available to the public and if so where might one find it?
dorothy griffith February 02, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Dorothy Griffith, a retired public librarian with 38 years of serviice in Montgomery County Phoenixville Library is part of the Chester County Library System, although it has a tie with the school system. I would suggest that questions would be referred to the District Center Library at Exton for more clarification as to status.
Rebekah Ray February 03, 2012 at 02:27 PM
This is an amazingly uninformed as well as mean spirited comment, but I have to respond that ALL 54 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia are still open. A proposal to close eleven branches four years ago was successfully protested by neighborhood groups which recognized their neighborhood branches as essential. The Free Library has had a pay freeze for the past four years, and has been able to hire very few people. I am one of seven librarians hired in the past four years and I am an "acting" branch manager at one of the branches that might have been closed four years ago if the neighbors had not fought for it. I cannot be officially promoted because there is not enough money for that. Every day we open the library and serve the public. The city of Philadelphia is also repairing the roof and pointing the exterior bricks on the 1915 CARNEGIE DONATION library where I work. And by the way, I support the "Occupy Movement". As a professional librarian I will certainly always be a member of the 99%. And as much as Occupy Movement people may support libraries, most of them would not be able to provide quality service to the public. And as a group (I say this from personal experience) they use their time very constructively at paid work when they have it, and donating their time to make our country a better place for the vast majority.
Richard A Breuer February 03, 2012 at 03:48 PM
For some history of the Phoenixville Library, look at this page on their web site: http://www.phoenixvillelibrary.org/library-history/ Let's think about what we are doing before we destroy a community resource that's been here since the 19th century. Let's pay more attention to this lasting and really valuable part of our community than on the current harebrained fascination with blobs, burning birds, and badly behaved bars.
Jay Beckerman February 04, 2012 at 05:02 PM
The PSERS ruling letter is available for you to read at the Library or at the PASD superintendent's office. Other background information also is there, such as the library history, the 1895 law creating the library, and information about the Carnegie agreement. The Ad Hoc committee meeting dates are on the Calendar page of the PASD.com web site, as are PASD board workshop and monthly meeting dates. Library Board meeting dates are on the CCLS.org web site for the Phoenixville Library. Try some actual research using these and other sources.
Jay Beckerman February 04, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Since the 1895 law gave taxing authority to school districts to levy the tax for libraries, the Pennsylvania Legislature would have to change the law to give libraries that taxing authority. While you and I and a few million other voters in this state might think that is a good idea, you should ask if the libraries and librarians agree, and if not, why not. Maybe librarians will speak up here about that. The simpler solution is for school boards to act as ministerial pass-through agents, collect as tax money what the libraries request up to the 1 mill max, add a generous percentage to that for the benefits school students and their families get from having good libraries open when the schools are not open, and keep any other agendas out of library business. Librarians are first-rate professionals in their own right, with a well-balanced sense of community need for service and community ability to pay for it, who do not need school board interference or takeover ambitions.
Peter C. Brown February 18, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Amen! I have often thought that the resources - such as the library - in our schools should be available to everyone in the community as well - not just the kids.

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