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County challenges loss of state certification for ImagineIF

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | February 12, 2022 12:00 AM

Flathead County Commissioners are challenging a decision to remove state certification for ImagineIF Libraries and seeking to regain state funding that goes with the designation.

State Librarian Jennie Stapp decided to withhold state funds of $35,000 and decertify the library system after the ImagineIF board of trustees approved a contract with a new library director who does not meet state standards.

County commissioners on Feb. 4 sent a letter to the Montana State Library Commission asking for the decision to be reversed, saying Stapp’s decision is not based on common sense and instead viewed as punitive.

“Our view is that while the prospective director does not have a [master of library science], she does have seven years of experience serving as a library director in another state,” the letter says.

The letter points out that other individuals on the library's executive team have master’s degrees, going on to say “The education required for certification, as a body of dedicated library professionals, is more than present to effectively, operate, frankly, a modest library system here in Flathead County.”

Library trustees in January approved a contract with Ashley Cummins, who is working to finish her bachelor’s degree, while Montana State Library standards require that the director of a library serving a community with a population of more than 25,000 people to have a master's of library science or equivalent to maintain certification.

The commissioner's letter asks that because library leaders work as a team that the aggregate graduate degrees will complement the director’s experience and should be considered as “equivalent.”

The issue regarding ImagineIF certification came up during the state library commission meeting on Feb. 9, when Stapp provided background to the commission regarding its role under state law in terms of certifying libraries. The commission is authorized to “act as a state board of professional standards and library examiners, develop standards for public libraries, and adopt rules for the certification of librarians.”

“It’s really about the intent of being able to provide a basic level of services that all Montanans deserve no matter where they live in Montana,” she said. “It’s public library standards that set the baseline that ensure we’re providing at least that baseline for all Montanans through their public libraries.”

Libraries go through the certification process every year by providing information to the state. There are provisions for a library to seek a waiver to be exempt from the standards based on hardships, and examples of hardships often include turnover of library directors or trustees who prevent a library from complying with one or more standards. About 15 libraries each year seek waivers, Stapp noted.

Prompted by the “alarming and heartbreaking events” commission member Bruce Newell also announced his resignation during the meeting noting that he would also be rescinding his application with the governor to be reappointed to the commission. Newell said he has been watching the events happening regarding ImagineIF and became concerned about his ability to serve impartially on the commission regarding topics related to ImagineIF.

“I’ve been an admirer of ImagineIF since I came to Montana,” he said. “It’s a world-class public library and that’s not just sort of a polite phrase, they’ve always been as good as it gets.”

Newell said when he heard that the Flathead County Library Alliance was forming that he and his wife felt compelled to donate to the newly formed group that says its goal is to advocate for the future direction of the library. Thus, Newell, wanting to avoid any conflict, chose to resign from his position on the state commission.

“I’ve never seen a great library that didn’t have a great board,” he said, noting that the ImagineIF board has lost the trust of the public and library staff that it has held for decades. “Good board members are passionate about public libraries, passionate about the importance of public libraries and free inquiry and the right to read and something for everyone in their community. Where that doesn’t happen we get a narrowing of the mission of public libraries. That concerns me a great deal in the Flathead, and possibly statewide.”

Also on Thursday, county commissioners addressed the library issue saying the request regarding certification has been placed on the state library commission’s agenda at its next meeting April 13.

County Commissioner Randy Brodel said there’s been a lot of “muck and mire” happening.

“I think changing the focus to look at the future is so important for everyone in supporting the library in where it’s going,” he said. “I want to be fully committed to that.”

“We hope they’ll review the decision in light of all the qualities of our library rather than of just one person,” he added of the request to the state library commission.

Commissioners in the letter sent to the state board say that despite an extensive nationwide search for a new library director only 11 prospective candidates with master's degrees were found and nearly all of those candidates chose to withdraw from consideration. As a result, they claim, library trustees were pressed to move forward by looking into alternative candidates including many who lacked a master’s degree, and thus trustees selected the new director based on ability though she did not have the required credentials.

The ImagineIF Libraries system has faced turmoil surrounding the board of trustees, including ongoing tensions between the board and library staff. Trustee board meetings have been standing-room capacity in recent months as members of the public have shown up in force to show support for the library as trustees have voted on formal requests to remove two books from library shelves and sought to hire a new director after two previous library directors resigned amid growing tensions.

In speaking with county commissioners on Thursday, ImagineIF Senior Librarian Sean Anderson said staff has become concerned about the ongoing attention focused on library operations.

“Staff is upset with the press and the attention that’s been going on,” Anderson said. “I want to acknowledge that on their behalf. I’m reminding them to focus on what they can control and providing services. They are doing an outstanding job.”

Features Editor Heidi Desch can be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.

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