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Athens Library’s short shelf life

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I don't want to throw the school system under the bus," Wake County director of community services Frank Cope told an exasperated county commission Monday afternoon. Whether he wanted to or not, however, that's exactly what Cope was doing.

He was halfway through a two-hour-long presentation on the imperiled Athens Drive Library, which, because of an innovative partnership with the Wake County Public School System, had resided inside Athens Drive High School since 1979. Except in April, the school district decided that for safety reasons it could no longer allow this arrangement to continue; the library couldn't be open during school hours, only on evenings and weekends.

That wasn't cost-effective, Cope said. A part-time library wouldn't attract enough patrons to justify its existence.

So on June 19 the county sent a letter to the library's Southwest Raleigh neighbors informing them that the branch would close at the end of July. It suggested they use the Cameron Village Regional Library—four miles away.

That didn't go over well.

On June 29, library supporters set up a Change.org petition demanding that the county keep the library where it is. A week later, as dozens of them descended on county commission chambers with blue-and-orange ribbons affixed to their shirts, that petition had garnered more than 350 signatures. They definitely got the county's attention.

Last week, the county announced that, for the time being, the library could stay open when students weren't around. Cope also developed four alternatives for commissioners to consider: close the library, operate the library on nights and weekends, lease commercial space for a new library, or build a new library in the neighborhood.

For library supporters, none of these was satisfactory. Keeping the library open in off-hours, they say, will prevent many lower-income residents from accessing vital services, including Internet access and special-needs classes. They doubt the county will shell out $5 million to build a new library from scratch. And each of the three proposed relocation sites has its own problems—primarily, they're too far away for those who don't have a car.

"I just think it would not be a wise use of dollars," Leslie Watts, who lives less than a mile from the current location, told the INDY last week. "We have a space that works and has worked for 35 years."

Cope's presentation came on the heels of an hour's worth of public outrage, 14 speakers in all—kids, parents, now-laid-off librarians—lamenting their library's precarious position and venting about how the county had handled things. They didn't buy the school district's supposed security concerns. After all, there had never been an incident at the library that anyone could remember; in fact, the library was safe enough that the county decided it didn't need a security officer. And they didn't trust the county's motives. It was just six years ago that an earlier county commission had pondered closing Athens Drive and two other branches before bowing to public pressure. "They listened to us," Watts says. "We thought this was resolved."

If it were up to him, Cope—an Athens Drive High alumnus—told the commission, it would have been resolved. "This certainly is not an attack on Athens Drive High School and the Athens Drive community," he said.

Cope accepted blame for not informing the public in a timely manner. But that didn't assuage the neighborhood's aggrieved, vocal and politically astute residents. As Cope recalled Commissioner John Burns telling him, "You've kicked a hornet's nest."

Yes he had. But you almost felt sorry for the guy: The way the agreement was set up, once the school district decided to pull out, his hands were effectively tied.

"There have been issues in terms of the public getting into the halls of the school and there has been some stalking of students in the library," school board member Jim Martin told the INDY last month. "It's one of the lowest-used libraries in the county, and there was not a good mechanism to run fewer hours and sustain the library."

He was partly right. It is true that in raw numbers, the Athens Drive Library doesn't draw patrons like other branches. But it's not true on a cost-per-person basis. On that score, the library does quite well. As for the security threats, while there have been reports of school security officers escorting people from campus, library backers say most of them were former students who were there to see their friends. (School district officials have said they wanted to head off risks before they emerged.)

"It sounds like somebody needed a convenient red flag," Yevonne Brannon told the INDY after the meeting. A former county commissioner, Brannon, along with former Raleigh City Councilor Miriam Block, had championed the library's creation a generation ago.

She may be right about security not being the entire story. The school district is also concerned about the deal's finances. The county paid the district about $148,000 to run the library in the most recent fiscal year; the district says the actual operating cost is closer to $190,000. In addition, the district isn't keen on managing the county's business: "Although it is not a school function to run a public library," school district attorney Benita Jones wrote to the county in April, "the WCPSS is currently hiring, evaluating and directly supervising County public library employees, which poses ongoing complications for the school-based administrators as well as the school library staff."

If the real issue isn't security but money, or if this is all a turf war, then there might be room to negotiate. That was an idea several commissioners circled throughout the meeting: Straighten out the underlying tensions between the county and school district, and maybe you can hash out a deal.

"I'm for option five," Commissioner Sig Hutchinson said. "Let's start over. Let's go back to the school system and revisit this and come to a solution that works for all."

Cope said that he would try, but he didn't sound optimistic. After the meeting, neither did the library's supporters. "We're not real happy," Watts told the INDY. "It's a mess."

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