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Disagreements over staff salaries, book content plague leadership at Flathead County library system

Books collection in pile on background.
artisteer/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Books collection in pile on background.

Last week the interim leader of Flathead County’s ImagineIF Library system resigned, citing actions by the board of trustees, like reducing salaries and considering censoring certain books because of their content.

Martha Furman had worked with ImagineIf for 15 years and had served as the interim head of the library system for the past four months.

Flathead Beacon reporter Micah Drew was at the board of trustee’s meeting when Furman resigned. He spoke with Yellowstone Public Radio’s Jess Sheldahl ahead of Furman's last day about what’s driving the disagreements and what comes next for Flathead County’s public library system.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jess Sheldahl: It seems like the staff and board of Flathead County’s ImagineIf library system, it seems like they've been butting heads for a while, but things kind of reached a boiling point during the December 2nd board of trustees meeting. Can you describe what was going on there?

Micah Drew: Yeah, there were a lot of things going on at this meeting. It started with a lot of public comment regarding some book challenges that have been happening kind of all over the country and have now made it to Flathead county. That was not actually an agenda item, but it did kind of start the meeting with an elevated sense of stress and animation from the audience.

And then the meeting itself covered a lot of things. Martha got to her resignation, which kind of set off most of the major discussions about a succession plan, staff morale and what turns out to be a feeling among many of the senior staff members that they do not want to step into a similar interim position because they feel that working with this board is not ideal.

I believe Sean Anderson, who's the senior librarian, was asked if he would replace Martha as the interim director. And he refused. He said that because the board has driven out now two directors he doesn't feel that stepping into that position is something that he feels good about doing now. So it turned into a lot of different discussions of various levels of animation, I would say, amongst the staff and the board members throughout several hours in the morning.

Yeah. And board meetings aren't necessarily known for their animation. So there's a lot of passion behind these issues. How did it get to that point? Why is there so much animosity between the board and staff?

So, some of this started several months ago. The former director of the library system, Connie Behe, stepped down in July and she took a position over in the Seattle area at another library. So that prompted the start of this staffing search. They need to replace a director. And then a few weeks later the children's librarian resigned and took a position in Bozeman. So they had two major staff librarian positions to fill.

And one of the first real points of conflict between the board and the interim director was when they went to re-list the positions. They listed the director's position and they listed the children's librarian position and they voted to cut the salaries of both of them.

Initially the director salary, according to the county HR director, should have stayed — or, her recommendation was that it stay at $84,000 a year. And the board initially tried to lower it by $25,000, which is a substantial drop in a department director's salary. Especially one that requires a master's degree and you have to be a licensed professional.

That initial motion did fail and they listed it slightly higher, but it still ended up being a $10,000 cut to the director salary. They had a similar discussion for the children's librarian and they ended up cutting that by 11%. And so staff overall, I believe, were feeling that their positions were being devalued. Even though no existing staff had salaries cut, when you see a position relisted for significantly lower than what it was previously held at, that doesn't do well for staff morale.

So that kind of started a lot of these conflicts, where staff members just felt that their profession was being devalued and they had some real concerns about the direction of the library going forward and whether the board had the best interests of the library at heart.

That low morale, has that had any direct impacts on how the library system is able to function in Flathead county? Because correct me if I'm wrong, but this is pretty much what runs all of the libraries in Flathead County, so that's not just one facility. Has that affected these staff members' ability to provide that public service of libraries to Flathead County?

As of right now, it does not appear that services are being affected. Staff are continuing to do as much as they can. It is a skeleton crew right now. There are definitely staffing shortages, like there are everywhere else, but they have not really had to cut down on anything. There was some concern when the children's librarian position was relisted at a lower salary that that might make it more difficult to hire somebody for that position.

They were able to bring somebody on, but one of the early concerns was that they would have to stop a lot of children's programming without somebody heading that part of the library system.

So there are some concerns that if these staffing shortages and if morale continues to lead to resignations that there would be problems down the line, but as of right now, they are definitely doing everything possible to make sure that the library is functioning as close to normal as possible. I think the only things that have really happened right now are there are delays with getting books ordered from other libraries, you know, reshelving all of just kind of the basic materials handling things. There's just a backlog and they've been working really hard to step up.

So kind of going back to this item that wasn't on the agenda, but it seemed like a lot of community members showed up to make public comments on, and that is the process of materials selections. This is a conversation that's happening all across the country. In Gillette, Wyoming, for example, for months, there have been protests about books that contain sexual education and LGBT material. Is what's happening in the Flathead just another one of those conversations, or is this a different kind of situation?

I'd say there's two answers to that. The conversation around the material specifically, I think, is very similar to what's happening around the country. The ImagineIf library has received challenges for two books, "Gender Queer" and "Lawn Boy," which have been at the heart of discussions over book banning and materials censorship across the country for months now.

The majority of libraries and communities having discussions, especially in regards to these two books, have been at school libraries. And there are very different regulations regarding material collections at school libraries. They can be a little stricter than you can at a public library. So it's a little interesting that both the Campbell County library in Gillette and Flathead County are two of the very few public libraries that have jumped into this discussion.

It was discussed at the meeting that the American Library Association, which is a nonprofit that advocates for libraries and most libraries follow their library bill of rights. It lays out a very strict bar for removing content from a library. It's a very, very high bar. And if you don't meet that bar then a board and the library opens itself up to legal action.

So, the likelihood that these challenges will and with book removal is probably pretty slim. However, that opened a conversation with one of the board members who stated it's his intention at some point to rewrite the policies regarding materials collection.

He believes that the board and the library should be separate from the American Library Association and therefore not be held to the same standards. And that would set off a whole other discussion of whether a board is overplaying their hand. They probably are not supposed to have their hands on materials and that ended up being a huge discussion.

So it's going beyond just a couple books that the public might have issues with. And in our instance, it seems to be evolving into ... whether or not these policies regarding materials need to be rewritten and whether they can be rewritten, and whether that is within the power of the board to do so.

So not necessarily so much a conversation about censorship, but more a conversation of is this board overreaching in its authority on how it can tell staff members how to run the libraries?

Yes. And that was one of the things that interim director Furman said part of her departure is that this board is really trying to get their hands on both staff decisions and materials decisions, which is definitely an overreach of their power, as she sees it.

So by the end of this meeting, it didn't seem like much was resolved at all. They had a nomination for a new leader or had they installed a new one.

So they offered the position to a senior librarian and that was declined by the head librarian as well as one of the other branch librarians. ... There's currently no interim director.

They are not going to have somebody there. They have just appointed a point person from the staff to serve as a go-between between staff and the board. So as of right now, the library does not have a director or an assistant director or an interim director. So it's devolving quickly and I'd say there's a lot of hesitancy from staff to end up in those places.

I think the obvious next step would be, they have to find somebody to lead this library system. But outside of that, what does the future for Flathead County’s library system look like? It's very uncertain, but what is next in this process of negotiations between the board and staff?

We definitely don't have a crystal ball, but there are a couple of small things we do know are coming down the line.

In January at the board meeting, there will be a discussion over the fate of the two book challenges. So that will likely be resolved. The staff is supposed to make a recommendation and the board will vote on that. And that will probably put an end cap on that particular chapter of this book challenge, however contentious that meeting ends up being.

As far as the new director, they have a group of candidates, so they are moving on to another round of interviews. I think they are interviewing about a half dozen people. So there are people in the pipeline that are playing out and they're obviously hoping to get it accomplished as quickly as possible.

The board is committed to filling that position as soon as possible with the most qualified candidate they can. So we're hoping to hear more about that either at the end of this month, or again, at that January meeting, we'll have updates on how that hiring process is going. After that, whenever they do bring on a new director, they will go through some of the other things that have come up, policy updates being one of those major ones. But that'll all happen once the new director is finally installed.