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Library funding cloud: A silver lining?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Moving on to the future of funding for Kanawha County's top-notch public library, a number of solutions have emerged.First, in the short term, Kanawha County Board of Education members have signaled a willingness to continue their scheduled payments, at least until June 30, giving the library a little breathing and planning space.A recent Supreme Court order says part of a special act requiring the school board to pass money on to the library is unconstitutional because it causes Kanawha County students to be treated differently from others. (That different means better in this case was not the point.) Several school board members have also acknowledged the library's value and suggested that the school system should share some cost of operating a public library system in the future.Second, a bill making its way to the Legislature would be a significant part of a long-term solution. A version of the bill being discussed this week would require every county school system to set aside at least 1 percent of its revenue for public libraries in the county starting in 2014.The money would be divided among libraries according to methods already set by the state Library Commission. That is, money would be divided based on the population in each public library's service area.In Kanawha County's case, 1 percent would be less than the 1.25 percent, or about $3 million, that it receives from the school board now, but it would still be a reliable and significant contribution. Nothing would stop county school boards from contributing more than 1 percent if they chose.And, such a law would apply to all counties, not just Kanawha or the other eight who have similar special acts affected by the Supreme Court order: Berkeley, Hardy, Harrison, Ohio, Raleigh, Tyler, Upshur and Wood.
Of course, there is a third option: The Legislature could accomplish the same thing simply by funneling more money into the state Library Commission to pass along to local libraries according to its current population-based formula.But the idea floating around in the bill draft has a lot to recommend it. West Virginia actually ranks high in the nation in per capita state funding for libraries -- seventh among all states as of 2010, and consistently in the top 10.Local funding for public libraries is a different, sadder story. West Virginia ranks 49th in per capita funding for libraries from local sources.Imagine the benefit to public libraries in the other 46 counties if legislators take this issue seriously and solve it. A larger source of income, reliable from year to year, could help small libraries around the state do more of the things they want to do, the kinds of things the Kanawha County Public Library is working hard to avoid cutting. They might acquire new materials more promptly, tailor more services for various ages, hire more professionals or stay open for longer hours, for example.All these developments could leave library funding, not just in Kanawha County but across the state, better off in the long run.While that was no one's intention in the beginning, this kind of investment does nurture diligent students and parents, eager employees and employers, better citizens and more robust communities. We could all use more of that.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at
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