American Libraries: 2008 November 23
Officials of the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) seemed taken aback by a November 20 press conference Mayor Karl Dean held at Nashville Public Library’s East branch where he announced that the city library would begin taking over the operation of school libraries systemwide in January 2009.
Nashville Public Library Director Donna Nicely confirmed to American Libraries that she and Mayor Dean had been conferring with each other for several months about the prospect of combining public and school library operations. “We all talk about thinking outside the box, but here’s an idea that truly could transform the public library and the school libraries because we would be enfolding them into the public library structure,” Nicely said, explaining that the idea was “strictly a proposal at this point.” However, she told CBS affiliate WTVF-TV at the press conference, “It‘s just a matter of organizing it and understanding how it all works and going forward with it.”
But school officials seem to have been left out of the loop. “We can’t say whether or not this is something we could do or could not do,” MNPS spokesperson Olivia Brown told AL. “At this point, we’ve not had any discussion, we’ve not had any proposal presented to the school board.”
The plan as envisioned by Nicely and Dean starts with the public library taking on the acquisition of materials for high school libraries “because Ms. Nicely says those libraries most reflect, in size and setup, what our branch libraries are like. So those would be the easiest to enfold into our library system,” mayoral Public Information Officer Janel Lacey told AL.
Lacey also emphasized that the mayor has made education “his number-one agenda item” since he took office in September 2007, acknowledging that his concern was heightened by the school system having entered Restructuring I status for the 2008–09 academic year for not making adequate yearly progress as defined by No Child Left Behind regulations. The category of Restructuring I places district-level financial decisions in the hands of the state Department of Education, and Tennessee DOE Commissioner Tim Webb confirmed in the November 17 Nashville City Paper that he was already researching whether Mayor Dean could legally be appointed trustee of the school district should it slip into Restructuring II status for the 2010–11 academic year.
These scenarios were playing out behind the scenes for the most part until the November 20 press conference. The next day, Dean and school officials disclosed letters dated November 20 that they had just exchanged. Dean’s letter to MNPS Acting Director Chris Henson cited a prior conversation between the two about “the benefits of consolidating the library services of Metro Schools and the Nashville Public Library” and advised Henson that library Director Donna Nicely “is prepared to move forward with this endeavor . . . with preparation starting in January 2009 and the first phase, primarily focused on combining the procurement of materials [for the public library and high school libraries], taking effect July 1.” Asserting that “this decision is common sense,“ Dean went on to say, “I know the libraries in Metro Schools have staff devoted to supporting the education we give our students in the classroom, and I believe this collaboration will greatly enhance their ability to do so.” (MNPS spokesperson Brown told AL that the system of 137 schools currently budgets for almost 200 librarians and aides.)
Replying for Henson, school board Chairman David A. Fox wrote Dean that, while school officials “are receptive to any efforts and ideas that could generate higher quality and more efficient services for our students,” a change of such magnitude “ultimately would be decided upon by the school board itself.” Besides, Fox emphasized, there had not yet been any “meaningful conversation” between city and school officials about a library merger aside from comments that “seemed to be just exploratory and . . . confidential.”
Genesis of a vision
Anticipating that “we’ll be sitting down with school officials soon to talk over what this means,” with the phase-in of consolidation starting by the end of 2009, Nicely told AL that idea of NPL overseeing school-library services emerged from a series of public hearings about the public library’s 5–10-year plan that began eight months ago. “We heard such a strong concern from people in the city about the teenagers. What are they doing after school? Could the public library assist them with after-school activities?” she explained, characterizing citizens’ comments as reflecting “an urgent concern, worrying about gangs.” Asked repeatedly by members of the public “how much more closely could we work with the public schools,” Nicely said she and Dean began to discuss the possibilities.
Nicely added that she saw enormous benefits for high-school students, who would have access from their school-library catalogs to Nashville Public Library’s 1.5-million holdings and—thanks to NPL’s online link to the records of area universities—a gateway to an additional 5 million items “if we can merge the automation systems.” Noting “all the programming that goes on in these public libraries after school for our teens,” she asked rhetorically, “Why can’t all of those programs be across the city in all the libraries,” with school libraries remaining open after hours thanks to the merger.
“If we’re going to make this work, then the school libraries need to be under the purview of the public library,” Nicely mused, adding, “If you think about all the staff as one entity, then you’re moving among and strengthening all the libraries.” Citing the profession’s often-expressed dream of “making [libraries] the center of life in the schools and the community,” Nicely predicted, “This is going to do it.”