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Kanawha school board wary of second library levy attempt

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County Board of Education members are wary of the idea of sponsoring another levy on behalf of the county's financially strapped library system.

The Kanawha County Public Library plans to again ask the school system to sponsor a levy on its behalf -- this time for library costs only. In November, voters overwhelmingly rejected a joint levy that would've brought in more than $24 million for schools and $3 million for libraries.

The county's library system lost 40 percent of its total operating budget when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kanawha County Schools last year, declaring school systems no longer have to financially support their county's libraries.

But because the Kanawha County Public Library system is not legally a levying body, it needs another agency -- the County Commission, the county school board or the city of Charleston -- to sponsor another attempt.

Library officials said they're choosing to again approach the school board because of the library's role in education, and because it'd be simpler to pass: a school levy can pass with a 50 percent plus one vote majority, but a county levy must have 60 percent of the vote to pass.

In addition, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper has said he would not tack the library levy onto the same ballot as the county's upcoming public safety levy.

"I'm concerned for the same reasons the county commission is. If we support this, it has the potential of jeopardizing anything we need to go forward with from a board of education perspective," said Kanawha County school board vice president Robin Rector. "We have living levies right now that help support many activities and programs in our school that the state does not provide dollars for, so if we support something for the library, it has the same potential that if we put something forth for needs we have, we won't be able to get it."

November's levy election cost the school system about $350,000 for things like paying poll workers and printing ballots. Rector, who supported the library's first levy attempt, said this time, the library has offered to front any election costs.

But she says the library is more integrated with the county and general citizens than it is in schools for students, and the school system has its own financial problems to work out.

"It's just a darn shame that they can't ask for dollars on their own. I almost think their better option is to try to go and get something changed legislatively to seek dollars on their own so they're not running into these conflicts by being dependent," Rector said. "I am so sympathetic to [the library's] situation. I don't know what the right answer is. But we're going to listen."

Kanawha County school board president Pete Thaw -- who campaigned against November's levy and has long pushed to cut financial ties with the library -- says he's unsure about it, and he's leaving it up to the people.

"I don't know. I'd like to hear from the people and have them vote on it. It would be interesting to see what their vote would be," Thaw said. "Up until now, the people of Kanawha County never had an opportunity to make a decision. For 57 years we have taken the money from them. They didn't give it to us, we took it under the flag of education and then handed it over to the library."

School board member Becky Jordon, who also supported the library in its first attempt, said she's undecided on whether she supports the idea of giving it another try.

"I'm unsure of anything right now," she said.

Both Thaw and Jordon are running for reelection to the board in May.

Board members Dennis Davis and Jim Crawford could not be reached by press time.