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Director hire could cost ImagineIF state accreditation

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | January 7, 2022 12:00 AM

The ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees on Thursday voted to offer its vacant director position to a candidate that, if hired, will likely mean the library system would lose its state accreditation and the funding that goes with it.

The board in a split vote chose to offer the position to Ashley Cummins, who currently serves as the director of a small rural library in Alabama. Cummins is working on completing her bachelor’s degree and has plans to work toward her master’s.

The Montana State Library requires that directors of libraries have a master’s in order for the library to be accredited and receive funding from the state. In the case of the ImagineIF system, that’s about $30,000 annually that would be lost.

The other candidate who made it to the final round of interviews is Abby O’Neill, who serves as a branch circulation supervisor for the Cuyahoga County library system in Cleveland, Ohio. She has a bachelor’s degree.

The board discussed the decision for more than an hour, with some saying they’d like to move forward with the hiring process and others saying it should start over and seek a candidate who has the higher-level degree.

A contract with the candidate still has to be negotiated, and the board of trustees will have to approve the contract before Cummings would officially assume the role.

JENNIE STAPP, the Montana State Librarian, via video conference told the board that the state requires directors of libraries serving a population over 25,000 to have a master’s of library science or equivalent degree in order to be accredited and receive funding.

“You can ask for a deferral of the requirements until they can be met and show a hardship for why you have not been able to hire someone with a master’s,” she said. “Every year you need to meet those standards or have plans for how you are going to address them.”

When asked if ImagineIf could apply for a hardship exception, Stapp said she is not in a position to make that decision now, but pointed out that the board has made a choice to pursue candidates who don’t have master’s degrees.

Board Vice Chairman Doug Adams said he’d rather hire Cummins with the intent she would obtain her master’s degree than start the process over, contending that education isn’t the only qualification needed for a job.

However, trustee Marsha Sultz said hiring either candidate wouldn’t be worth losing the library system’s accreditation with the state.

The board ultimately voted 3-2 to extend an offer to Cummins, but not before a lengthy discussion over her qualifications for the position. Adams, Heidi Roedel and David Ingram voted in favor of the hiring, while Sultz and Connie Leistiko voted against.

Leistiko said she has concerns about hiring Cummins.

“With Ashley, I have to wonder if she knows exactly what she’s getting into and the last thing we need is someone who is not able to do this job,” she said. “I don’t want us to fail and I don’t want the person we select to fail.”

Roedel said she had faith in Cummins’ ability as a “good researcher” to learn the job.

“I think she can do the job,” Roedel said. “I feel like we don’t always need to be doing things the same old way and we need to have someone who can make this work.”

Cummins has been the director of the Russellville Public Library in Russellville, Alabama, for seven years. She oversees a staff of two people.

ImagineIf employees about 35 people.

O’Neill has served in several roles with the Cuyahoga County library system in Cleveland, Ohio, where she currently serves as branch circulation supervisor. The library system includes 27 branches.

DURING PUBLIC COMMENT, a handful of people expressed concern about hiring Cummings, including two representatives of the ImagineIF Library Foundation.

Charlotte Housel, executive director of the foundation, pointed out that losing accreditation would mean losing potential funding sources such as grants. She also expressed concern about hiring a candidate that lacks the experience necessary to oversee a major capital campaign like the foundation is undertaking to raise $1.6 million to construct a new library building for Bigfork.

“We really need a partner in fundraising,” she said. “We’re in the midst of the process with the capital campaign and you’re looking at hiring someone without a demonstrated background for this kind of campaign.”

Senior librarian Sean Anderson expressed concerns about both candidates’ abilities to lead the library, but specifically about Cummins’ ability to manage a much larger staff and library system.

“With the turmoil of the last six to 12 months, we’re in need of leadership,” he said. “We need a director and an assistant director who can engage with staff quickly.”

THE INTERIM DIRECTOR of the library system resigned last month amid growing tensions between some library board members and the library staff. Martha Furman became the interim director after former director Connie Behe resigned in July.

Furman previously told the Daily Inter Lake that some board members have been “continuously blurring the line between the board and the director.”

The library is also without an assistant director.

The staffing crisis has continued amid formal requests to remove two books from its collection because of subject matter that deals with gender identity and sexual content. A review committee is considering the requests and the board could make a decision on the request at its Jan. 13 meeting.

In conducting its search for a new library director, the board used the recruiting firm, CPR HR Consulting of California, to help in the nationwide search that resulted in a total of 10 applications. That was narrowed down to three candidates who took part in video interviews, and then the board invited the final two candidates to visit the library and participate in an open house that was held earlier this week.

Of the initial candidates, five withdrew from the process citing salary, cost of living and board conflicts as reasons for withdrawing.

The director position salary was advertised at a starting figure of $75,123.

The library board in September voted to lower the director’s pay, which previously had a starting salary of about $84,500.

A representative for the hiring consultant told the board on Thursday that to attract candidates for the position with a higher level of qualifications the salary would need to be increased at least to the previous level while noting that Missoula’s library director’s salary has a top end pay of $130,000.

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

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of the Montana State Librarian's name as Jennie Stapp.