INDY file photo, 2009
At its board meeting this afternoon, the Wake County Commission will hear an update on the county’s plans
to eventually relocate the public library that operates inside Athens Drive High School in Southwest Raleigh.
No vote is scheduled, but that likely won’t stop the library’s neighbors from showing up in force, many with little blue-and-orange ribbons affixed to their lapels. While county staffers have, under considerable community pressure, backed off on their original plan, announced last month, to shutter the library altogether
, the residents say the new plans will still have an adverse effect on their community. Temporarily keeping the library open only on evenings and weekends, they say, will keep many residents, especially lower-income residents, from accessing vital services, including Internet access and special-needs classes. And the three proposed relocation sites each has its own problem—mostly, they’re too far away from the people who rely on need them.
“I just think it would not be a wise use of dollars,” says Leslie Watts, who lives less than a mile from the current location. Her two kids, ages 15 and 12, grew up in the library. “We have a space that works and has worked for 35 years.”
The residents would prefer the status quo: Keep the library where it has been since 1980, and keep it open during normal hours.
The problem with that, according to the county and the Wake County Public Schools System, is safety. “During the past several years,” according to county documents, “security concerns surrounding inviting the public onto a school campus have become a greater issue. WCPSS was very concerned about opening a school to the general public while school was in session. Since a public library, by definition, is open to everyone, it became clear that offering public library service inside a public school was problematic, and it posed a challenge to maintaining the safety of the students and staff.”
And so, this grand experiment—a unique partnership forged a generation ago between the county, school district and city of Raleigh, and championed by former city councilor Miriam Block, to jointly fund a library that would both serve the public and augment the school’s library facilities—would have to end.
In April, the Wake County Public Schools System sent a memo to county officials, informing them that the school was going to use the library as a media center during the day, and as such it would no longer be available to the public during those hours. County officials then determined that it wouldn’t be cost-effective to keep the library open on nights and weekends. Besides, the county argued, 75 percent of library patrons checked out books in other branches, so closing this branch wouldn’t be a big imposition.
On June 19, Wake County Public Libraries deputy director Ann M. Burlingame sent a letter to residents informing them that, effective July 26, the library would be closed. Most of its staff would be laid off. “Schools must be vigilant about limiting access on their property while public libraries encourage everyone to use their facilities unless there is a legal reason to no longer provide access,” Burlingame explained. “These are very different fundamental approaches, and for that reason, Wake County Public Schools and Wake County Public Libraries together decided it was best to end public library service at Athens Drive High School.”
Residents, she continued, could avail themselves of one of the library system’s other 19 facilities, the closest of which was in Cameron Village, more than four miles away.
Ann Spencer, who lives nearby, says her 9-year-old son couldn’t begin to wrap his head around the news. “When I told him the other day the library was going to close—I wish I had a picture,” she says. “It was completely outside of his realm of reality.”
This wasn’t the first time the county had moved to close the library. In 2009, citing budget constraints and the library’s $212,000 annual operating cost, the county commission weighed closing the facility
. The residents balked, packing public hearing and accusing the county of treating the library, and the people it serves, like a redheaded stepchild. Watts’ son spoke at the public hearing; her daughter Mimi, now 12, held up a sign, a child’s scrawl of orange marker on white poster board that read, “Please Don’t Close Athens Drive Library.”
Courtesy Leslie Watts
In 2009, Southwest Raleigh residents first fought the county’s plan to close their library
The commission ultimately bowed to public pressure
, though since then funding has fallen considerably—$180,000 in 2009, $145,000 in 2010, $160,000 in 2011, currently $148,983.
“They listened to us,” Watts says. “We thought this was resolved.”
This time, the objection wasn’t money—$150,000 is a drop in the bucket in the county’s recently approved $1.1 billion general-fund budget
—but safety: Given concerns about violence and sexual predators, the school district reasoned that it was unwise to have students comingle with the general public. (Of course, none of the potentially dangerous incidents at the school that made the news in recent years—a student with a handgun
in 2013, a fight in 2010 that sent three students to the hospital
, an assault on an assistant principal in 2012
, a sex offender who tried to volunteer at the school in 2009
—involved library patrons.) The county’s theory was that if the public isn’t allowed into the library during school hours, not enough people would use it to justify its existence.
A little over 132,000 people currently enter the library every year, according to county records, making it the most cost-efficient branch in the area. (That’s primarily because the school district is responsible maintaining the library facility, so that money isn’t factored into the county’s budget.) Under the reduced hours, the county estimates, that number would drop to about 23,000, making Athens Drive the most expensive per-person library in the area, by far.
Once again, the Athens Drive Public Library was on the block. Once again, its neighbors balked. And once again, the county appears to have acquiesced, at least somewhat.
On June 29, library supporters launched a Change.org petition
calling on the county to postpone the library’s closing until a suitable solution could be reached. In six days, it garnered more than 320 signatures.
On that web page, current and former residents of Avent West and the surrounding areas lamented their potential loss, telling of how their kids learned to read at that library, how the staff new their names, how teachers at the high school relied on the library’s resources to enhance their students’ education, how residents attend book clubs there with their neighbors.
“We fought for a branch library over 30 years ago in SW Raleigh. Athens Drive was the compromise,” wrote Raleigh resident David Fish. “If the county wants to take it away, they must replace it or reduce or property taxes accordingly.”
The county listened. This afternoon, at the prompting of County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, staffers will present the commission with fallback options. According to county documents, plan B begins with working out a deal with the school district to keep the library open from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday.
“This arrangement will continue until the Board of Commissioners make a final decision regarding the provision of library service in the Athens Drive community,” according to county documents.
That final decision will likely take the form on one of four options staff will present to the commission for consideration: close the library, keep it open on evenings and Saturdays, lease another building to provide library service, or build a new community library.
Closing the library would engender even more backlash. The county has already determined that keeping the library open during off-hours is not viable. A new library would cost $5.2 million to build, not including the price of land, and another $600,000 a year to operate.
That leaves option C, leasing an existing building, which would cost the county a little more in annual operating costs but save more than 80 percent upfront. Staff offered three potential sites: the Swift Creek Shopping Center, the Plaza West Shopping Center and the Avent Ferry Shopping Center. Of these, Avent Ferry is the closest, less than a mile east of the current library, but it’s also the most expensive to retrofit.
But even that wouldn’t solve the problem, says Spencer. Not only does the extra distance put a strain on those without cars, not to mention kids who have to bike or walk busy roads to get there, but she also worries that the library will lose the benefits of being located in a school—things like special-ed tutoring—and the school will lose the resources of having a full-service library on site.
“What’s the win-win solution?” asks Hannah Reynolds McKenzie. “We didn’t know there was a problem.”
McKenzie goes there with her 2-year-old, and the library was part of the reason she lives in this neighborhood even though her husband works in Durham.
“I was flabbergasted when I found out” about the county’s plans, she says. “That’s the library I feel safest in with him. We know the people. This is our community.”
On Friday, a form letter arrived at Watts’ house from county libraries director Michael J. Wasilick announcing both the county commission meeting Monday and another public forum at the library at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 9.
“We invite you to attend either of these meetings to learn what the options are and share your thoughts on which one you think would best meet the needs of the community,” he wrote.
“It’s nice that they’re reaching out,” Watts says. “It’s kinda a little bit late.”