We've heard this story before. The New Orleans Public Library (NOPL), facing a massive budget shortfall and with no additional funding from the city, may close or severely limit hours at branches, lay off staff and cut already underfunded programs. How did we get here — again?
In 2012, the library system saw the reopening of several branches, with Mayor Mitch Landrieu leading a ribbon cutting outside the Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center in Broadmoor, his old neighborhood. Reopenings followed in Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East and Algiers, and the NOPL now has 14 branches open, the most since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods destroyed several libraries. Charles Brown joined NOPL as head librarian in 2011 and has helped usher in new programs, ebooks, digital services and other updates, including one of the most ambitious goals within the NOPL yet, topping even the back-to-back-to-back branch overhauls and reopenings: By 2018, the city aims to be the most literate city in the U.S.
It's a tall order. According to NOPL, more than 40 percent of people in the city ages 16 and older struggle with basic literacy. The New Orleans Community Data Center estimates more than a quarter of the city's workforce has little to no reading, writing or computer skills — more than double the national average. Many New Orleans literacy programs are full, with some keeping waiting lists as long as a year.
At the NOPL's annual budget hearing before the New Orleans City Council Nov. 10, Brown warned — again — about the library nearing "a crossroads," with its reserve funds drying up while operating five new locations.
"I'm not sure how we allowed this to happen," District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell told Brown at the hearing. "We have not done well by you, by libraries, by our people."
The YMCA's adult literacy program YMCA Educational Services (YES) operates within two NOPL branches, the main branch on Loyola Avenue and the New Orleans East branch. While a tight budget at the library won't necessarily cut funding for literacy programs, cutting hours and staff — the first on the chopping block to save dwindling funds — could be "disastrous" to the programs, according to program director Shannan Cvitanovic.
"That would be so detrimental to us," she says. "We would hate to lose any more hours. We need more hours."
In 1986, New Orleans voters approved a dedicated 4-mill millage for the library, bumping the NOPL's annual budget up by $4 million. After the 2005 levee failures, it rolled back to 3.14 mills. Based on its millage rate alone, which is set to provide $9.5 million in 2015, the NOPL ranks among the least financed library programs of its kind per capita among Southern cities and nearby parishes. But the millage only covers personnel costs. The library's reserve fund is at $7.2 million; it was tapped for $3 million this year, and will be tapped again for another $3 million in 2015. Brown anticipates it will be empty by 2016.
While the money dries up, needs increase — especially as the city continues to open new library branches. NOPL saw an 18 percent overall increase in program attendance from 2013 to 2014, with nearly 7,000 teens enrolled in summer reading programs (up 20 percent), and more than 46,000 people participated in library programs in 2014. (There were more than 860,000 visits to New Orleans libraries as of mid-year, according to the NOPL.)
Additional funding from trust funds and federal, state and local grants help pay additional costs and programs, like Turn the Page, supported by the New Orleans Library Foundation, which also supports the library's Every Child Ready to Read program for school readiness. Turn the Page formally launched in January 2014, kicking off with a Guinness World Record-setting "Largest Reading Lesson" with musician Irvin Mayfield (who also is chairman of the NOPL board) and actor Wendell Pierce reading to more than 400 children.
The YES program receives only in-kind support from NOPL, like free use of office space, class space and utilities. The program — one full-time teacher, three part-time teachers and volunteers — serves 175 students each year, with an average of 10 students per instructor. Students range from offshore workers who need to pass a literacy test as a condition of their jobs to grandmothers learning to read picture books to their grandchildren.
"For some students, what happens is, they're pushed to call us because of a crisis," Cvitanovic says. "Money is tight at home; they need a better job, but the jobs they're applying for require a high school diploma. They're pushed to call us. They need money for the family."
NOPL branches already have limited hours — Brown says its branches are open half the hours of the libraries in Baton Rouge, and several branches are closed entirely on Fridays. While YES isn't in immediate danger of losing funding, NOPL's budget woes could force branches to slash hours, leaving YES without a place for its students — and if more branches lose Friday hours, YES would lose its Friday open study hours.
Cvitanovic says the program needs longer library hours to accommodate people leaving work after 6 p.m., "and not just for an hour," she adds. "It takes a while to get a class going, so we need two hours to get stuff done." Many students work in the service industry, but Cvitanovic asks, "What about people working 9 to 5?"
There are several adult literacy programs throughout the city — some are small, like at Bishop Terry Center in the Faubourg Marigny, which instructor Rae Jean Carroll says teaches only a handful of students two days a week. Those smaller programs rely on word of mouth or referrals from the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, which puts students in touch with nearby neighborhood programs. (Transportation — along with jobs and childcare — remains one of the biggest barriers to literacy programs. Prior to the opening of the YES program at the New Orleans East branch, one of Cvitanovic's students took a bus from Little Woods to NOPL's main branch in the CBD.) Last month, the Young Leadership Council wrapped its annual One Book One New Orleans to promote literacy citywide.
"If someone tells you people in New Orleans don't want to be educated, don't believe that," Cvitanovic says. "It was a lie when I taught at Delgado a decade ago, when I'd see people lined up to come into the GED programs, and it's a lie here, where we say we're having new student enrollment, and people call and want services."
"The need far exceeds the resources available to support it," Brown says.
If NOPL is forced to cut staff, YES will lose its "front line" of librarians acting as a built-in referral system for literacy programs, Cvitanovic says. "Even if you can't read, you know you can go to the library for help."
NOPL has been "chronically underfunded since the very beginning," Brown told the City Council at the budget hearing. "It's never been funded as a world-class operation."
Council President Stacy Head suggests the library ask voters to go back to the polls for the recently rejected property tax measure that would have generated $9 million a year to help pay for expensive reforms at Orleans Parish Prison. That measure wouldn't touch the millage rate and could free up the city's general fund to support other services — like NOPL.
Head said the city's private universities also should pitch in. "If they are going to say they are the Harvards of the South, they need to do what Yale, Harvard and Brown do: They give back to communities," she said. Head also suggested the Louisiana Legislature "be intellectually consistent" with allowing local governments to govern themselves, and allow the city to increase cigarette and alcohol taxes to pay for vital services, including NOPL.
And literacy is one of the vital components of NOPL's other 2015 goals. The library hopes to offer a high school certification program (not a GED) with help from NOLA for Life, the mayor's crime prevention initiative.
"The lion's share of young men coming through the city's criminal justice system for whatever reason are illiterate or have serious windows in literacy," said District E Councilman James Gray, who added his support for the millage. "I'd be more dire in my statement to the public. ... This is a public safety initiative. ... When you put them out (of) the library, they go to the streets."