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Community leaders rally behind Literacy Bitterroot

Citizens take issue with public library policy

By Michael Howell

Terry Ryan, Managing Director of the local non-profit Rob and Terry Foundation, has rounded up signatures from all five county commissioners, current mayor of Hamilton Jerry Steele and both candidates for Hamilton mayor, Travis Martinez and Dominic Farrenkopf, State Representatives Ron Ehli, Ed Greef, and Nancy Ballance, State Senator Pat Connell, Bitterroot College Director Victoria Clark, Hamilton School Board Chairman David Bedey, Director of the Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce Al Mitchell, and Deputy Juvenile Detention Officer Deanna Blocker, all signing off on a letter to the Board of Directors of the Bitterroot Public Library District asking them to reverse their recent decision to allow Missoula County Public Schools to use the library’s community meeting room to conduct HiSet Classes.

What bothers community leaders here in the Bitterroot is that Missoula County Public Schools was awarded all of the state and federal funding that in past years came to the Ravalli County HiSet Program, Literacy Bitterroot. This is apparently part of the Bullock administration’s ongoing “regionalization” of services provided by the state as a cost saving measure. Bullock claims that he has no alternative if he is going to implement the Republican-created budget that he was handed.

According to Ryan’s letter, this decision cuts the funding to Literacy Bitterroot in half. It is claimed that Missoula County Public School officials have stated at public meetings that they have budgeted 1,000 hours for Ravalli County at $28 per hour which brings the total budget to only $28,000, less than half the past annual funding.

The letter states that the Office of Public Instruction has said that the funds will be returned, “only if Missoula does not offer services for the Bitterroot.”

“Thus your offer of this room may enable Missoula County Public Schools to retain the grant and take HiSet service permanently out of local control. Our county has already lost the Economic Development funding, the Job Service Office and possibly Vocational Rehabilitation to Missoula. We were also refused local control of our Community College. Past experience demonstrates the actual funds expended to serve the Bitterroot always decreases when this happens,” the letter states.

The letter goes on to state that they were informed that the Library decided against meeting with officials from the college to discuss the issue stating the library policy is “neutral.”

“You are not a separate and neutral country like Switzerland,” the letter states. “The Bitterroot Public Library is part of the fabric of the local community. Yet you have interpreted your policy in a manner that jeopardizes the fabric of our community and gives control to Missoula.”

“Moreover,” it states, “members of the community are bewildered and angry over your decision in view of the fact this library evicted the Literacy Bitterroot years ago. Your staff claimed that there was no room for them. Now you have allowed the Missoula Program to regularly occupy your community meeting room on the very same evening Literacy Bitterroot teaches classes at the college… Why is the Library now welcoming the Missoula Program when it evicted the local program… Please reconsider your policy in a manner that is less harmful to your local community.”

Library Director Mark Wetherington has written an open letter in response. He quotes the library’s Mission Statement that “Community residents from all walks of life will have access to quality library services that will provide programming and activities to support lifelong learning and encourage the pleasure of reading and the freedom of information.” He said the library maintains neutrality in regard to the groups who use the community room and that use of it does not imply library support for the groups using it.

“Our meeting room policy is guided by the Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states,” he wrote, “The Community Program Room is available to the public on an equitable basis. In accordance with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights and its interpretation pertaining to meeting rooms, the library does not limit use of the meeting room based on the subject matter or content of the meeting or on the beliefs or affiliations of the meeting’s sponsors.”

Wetherington goes on to recognize that in making its decision, a financial hardship has been placed on Literacy Bitterroot.

“This is extremely unfortunate,” he wrote, “as Literacy Bitterroot has served our community at the highest level for more than two decades. At the present time, Missoula County Public Schools Adult Education has been tasked by the state to provide adult education services in Ravalli County. They requested to use the library’s community room and, in accordance with our policy to provide equitable access, we allowed them to use the community room.

“The library does not endorse one group over another and will continue to follow our community room policy. We are a library, not a legislative body, and have no control over decisions made at the Office of Public Instruction or in regard to state funding. We encourage all citizens of Ravalli County who are concerned about the changes in funding for adult education to become informed about the issue and contact their legislators and the Office of Public Instruction to voice their concerns,” wrote Wetherington.

Wetherington also told the Bitterroot Star that he was particularly disturbed at a few “misrepresentations” that had been made. He said that the reference to the Literacy Bitterroot being evicted from the library might have been a reference to a letter sent to them in June of 2001 when they had outgrown the room available at the library. He said in that letter the organization was invited to continue using the community room.

Wetherington also objected to the notion that the library had refused to talk to Bitterroot College about the issue. He said that he met with Victoria Clark and a faculty member and discussed the issue for at least an hour. He also said he was willing to continue the discussion if the college would put their concerns in writing so he could take them to his board but got no response.

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