Jul 26, 2014
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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.

School Board Ponders District’s Ownership of Library

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

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