Lit­er­acy starts early

The Covington News - - Opinion - BAR­BARA MOR­GAN COLUM­NIST Bar­bara Mor­gan is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent with a back­ground in news­pa­per jour­nal­ism, state gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics.

Kim De­go­nia has a pretty full plate as it is. She’s a part­time mag­is­trate judge for New­ton County and a mu­nic­i­pal judge in Por­terdale. She and her hus­band have three boys, ages 5, 9 and 11, whom she calls “trou­ble,” and she teaches yoga on the side “to pre­serve my san­ity,” she laughs.

Now, she’s the face of a pas­sion­ate ci­ti­zen move­ment to gen­er­ate new fund­ing for the chil­dren’s li­brary of the New­ton County li­brary sys­tem that op­er­ates three fa­cil­i­ties. She took her case to the Cov­ing­ton City Coun­cil and the county board of com­mis­sion­ers this week, backed by a con­tin­gent of sup­port­ers who be­lieve in the im­por­tance of child­hood lit­er­acy and are con­cerned about what ap­pears to be a lack of at­ten­tion to chil­dren’s ser­vices at the li­brary. She cited hun­dreds of books not shelved, empty shelves, torn car­pet and the lack of a full­time pro­fes­sional in the chil­dren’s room. She asked for a com­mit­tee of city and county rep­re­sen­ta­tives to work with con­cerned par­ents on ad­di­tional fund­ing and fundrais­ing. It was only two years ago that our li­brary topped all other li­braries in the state in the na­tion­ally rec­og­nized Hen­nen’s Amer­i­can Pub­lic Li­brary Rat­ings. The rank­ing iden­ti­fied how well a li­brary is serv­ing its community with avail­able funds.

At the coun­cil, mem­bers Chris Smith and Janet Good­man ques­tioned giv­ing more city money to the li­brary, funded pri­mar­ily by the county and the state. Smith said the city gives $30,000, but he was wrong: the city only gives $15,000, ac­cord­ing to the li­brary’s fi­nan­cial man­ager Mar­cia Allen. How­ever, Mayor Ron­nie John­ston and coun­cil mem­bers Hawnethia Wil­liams and Ocie Franklin agreed to join the com­mit­tee, with the coun­cil de­clin­ing more funds at this time.

When De­go­nia met with the board of com­mis­sion­ers Tues­day evening, she might as well have been talk­ing to the wall, ex­cept for Chair Kathy Mor­gan and com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz, both of whom agreed to join the com­mit­tee. Mort Ewing prides him­self a South­ern gen­tle­man, but the swift­ness with which he moved to change the sub­ject proved he’s any­thing but. On­look­ers were slack-jawed.

Nev­er­the­less, De­go­nia said she’s been “as­tounded by the re­sponse from the community, even just peo­ple on the street” and sees “lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties” to ad­dress the is­sue of fund­ing for the li­brary. “I think a lot of peo­ple have been suf­fer­ing cut­backs in li­brary fund­ing in si­lence,” she said, ex­press­ing hope that hav­ing an is­sue to rally around will en­cour­age more ci­ti­zen and vol­un­teer in­volve­ment with the li­brary.

Hav­ing a lit­er­ate pop­u­la­tion is vi­tal to the county’s at­trac­tion as a site for new de­vel­op­ment, and lit­er­acy starts early, she be­lieves. That’s ex­actly what gave rise 10 years ago to the New­ton County Lit­er­acy Fes­ti­val, set for Sun­day, Sept. 23, from 2 to 5 p.m. on the square. Main Street Di­rec­tor Josephine Kelly said a cham­ber of com­merce sur­vey a decade ago “iden­ti­fied lo­cal lit­er­acy lev­els as a con­cern that im­pacts work­force readi­ness.” Some 30 lo­cal part­ners spon­sor the event an­nu­ally.

New­ton County Li­brary Di­rec­tor Lace Keaton said, “It’s won­der­ful to work in a community where peo­ple are so pas­sion­ate about the li­brary.” State li­braries have suf­fered vi­cious bud­get cuts by the state, some 3 per­cent just this year and an­other 3 per­cent just an­nounced. “Ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on at the li­brary is bud­get-driven,” she said. The county’s li­brary bud­get has re­mained con­sis­tent in the face of state cuts, said Allen, the fi­nance of­fi­cer.

The li­brary lost em­ploy­ees when the State Health Ben­e­fit Plan raised pre­cip­i­tously the per­cent­age of pay­roll the li­brary paid for em­ployee ben­e­fits to a flat fee of more than $900 per month per em­ployee. When li­braries protested, the pro­gram cut it back $200, but it will go back up in two years, ac­cord­ing to li­brary board chair Lois Upham. The orig­i­nal in­crease would have cost the li­brary an­other $89,000 this year. Peo­ple lost their jobs, had their hours cut back or quit be­cause of the im­pact. “We’re manag­ing the cut­backs in fund­ing and per­son­nel by ef­fi­cien­cies and fru­gal­ity,” Upham said. She knows of some en­tire li­brary sys­tems that are in dan­ger of clos­ing due to state bud­get cuts and new em­ployee man­dates.

The full-time chil­dren’s li­brar­ian Carol Du­rusau has new du­ties in man­age­ment and ma­te­ri­als ac­qui­si­tion, but still serves as chil­dren’s li­brar­ian, just not at a ded­i­cated desk in the chil­dren’s room, she said. All three New­ton li­brary fa­cil­i­ties em­ploy trained chil­dren’s pro­fes­sion­als. This li­brary — as well as li­braries statewide — has cre­ated a one-stop pa­tron point of ser­vice for all re­quests. “It’s just the way li­braries are be­ing con­fig­ured to­day,” Upham said. “It’s as if we’re re­mod­el­ing a house. It will look the same out­side, but it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent inside.”

De­go­nia wel­comes more pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in the ef­fort to bring the chil­dren’s li­brary up to stan­dards par­ents and kids want to see. If you want to vol­un­teer, you can contact her at kimde­go­nia@ bel­lsouth.net.

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