TECUMSEH, Mich. - For more than a century, the Tecumseh Public School District has operated the area's library system. But it's a responsibility school officials say they can no longer afford.
School officials said they would like to create a taxpayer-financed district library.
Currently, the district spends about $325,000 annually from its general fund to operate the library, Superintendent Richard Fauble said. The money, he said, is becoming increasingly difficult to spare.
“The public library is an important thing in the community, but I can't tell you it has priority over programs for kids,” Mr. Fauble said. “We've cut several hundreds of dollars out there. If this would continue through the next few school years, it would mean cutting teachers. And it would be cutting teachers where we just put them.”
Many libraries opened under the auspices of school districts.
The Tecumseh Public Library serves more than 17,000 people who live within the school district boundaries. The district includes all of the city of Tecumseh, Tecumseh Township and portions of Adrian, Franklin, Macon, Raisin, Clinton, and Ridgeway townships.
School officials are blaming part of the problem on Proposal A, which was passed in 1994.
Proposal A radically shifted the burden of paying for education from local property taxes to the state sales tax. Prior to Proposal A, local property tax issues funded school district-run libraries. In Tecumseh, one mill was dedicated to the library. In Michigan, a mill is $1 for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value.
But after Proposal A, financial support for libraries turned from tax issues to the districts' general funds.
Tecumseh district has budgeted money to operate the library for the 2002-2003 school year. But officials said the money would probably soon run out. The district has announced that it would give up fiscal responsibility for the library on July 1, 2003.
A 20-member library committee has been formed to examine the issue of a district library and work out the details. Made up of representatives from the city and the townships, as well as area residents, the committee has already worked out a timeline, concluding with a tax issue that would go before voters in May.
But first, the committee has to work out a budget to present to Tecumseh city council members and hope that the group agrees to become involved in the district, said committee co-chairman David Abraham, who also is a Lenawee County commissioner.
Mr. Abraham said the district library would include residents from within both the city and the school district boundaries.
“First of all, the city council has to say they will participate or the school district will have a big decision to make about whether they want to deal with closing the library,” he said. “Then, we decided to give the millage to the end of 2003 to pass. We just have to look at the positives.”
Co-chairwoman Nancy Smith said the group would have to work out a budget to see what sort of funding the library would need. She said there were no hard feelings against the school district.
“Tecumseh school district has hung on much longer than many, many of the other school districts. But at this point, it's just not possible,” Ms. Smith said. “It has functioned quite successfully but things go on and on and then one day this just isn't the best way to run things anymore.”
Tecumseh is not alone.
Since the passage of Proposal A, libraries in Ann Arbor, Saline, and Manchester, all in neighboring Washtenaw County, have lost their affiliations with school districts. In Lenawee, Hillsdale, and Monroe counties, no other library is run by the local school districts.
Tecumseh Public Library Director Barbara Smith said she's excited by the prospect of the library being its own, separate entity. If a district library were formed, a library board - not the school board - would oversee it.
The director said other facilities that have become district libraries claim to have more freedom and more money than they did as a school district library. But she acknowledged that the change to a district library might not come easy.
“It's difficult for us to say what will happen right now because we're really in the beginning stages,” she said.
Hillsdale library officials know first-hand the difficulties in selling the idea of a district library.
Although the Mitchell Public Library in Hillsdale County has been independent of the schools for many years, it found itself financially strapped and in need of a permanent millage from the townships that had struck up a cooperative deal with the board.
But despite its use by residents in Jefferson, Cambria, and Hillsdale townships, voters defeated a 1-mill proposal in September to pay for library services. Only Hillsdale city residents, who had already been paying a millage, approved the proposal.
Recently, the board approved a deal with Hillsdale Township in which township officials agreed to pay the library about $8,800 so that their residents would still be eligible for free library cards.
“Cambria and Jefferson townships will have to pay. We're charging $45 per family card. And $30 for an individual card, per annum,” said Jacqueline Morris, Mitchell Public Library director.
“We're really sorry to have to do this,” she said. “Perhaps the townships will decide that they want the service and chose to join, and that is always open to them, or perhaps the state will decide to change the way they do things and offer more help. That's our main problem, lack of state aid.”