Citing public libraries' role in enhancing education, three Jackson County school boards have taken a political stand in favor of a three-year property tax levy on the May 15 ballot to reopen the county's shuttered library system.
The Ashland, Phoenix-Talent and Rogue River school boards passed resolutions this month declaring support for Ballot Measure 15-75. Ballots go out on Friday.
"Public libraries should be readily available to everyone; access to knowledge shouldn't be based on people's ability to pay," said Trayce Geddes, chairwoman of the Rogue River School Board. "The libraries serve not only our kids but their parents, and they are an integral part of public education."
The county's three largest districts — Medford, Central Point and Eagle Point — have not taken an official position on the measure.
"As a board, we support the libraries along with the other public services affected by the loss of $23 million (in federal timber payments)," said Larry Nicholson, Medford School Board chairman. "The library levy is a short-term fix that restores funding to the library but doesn't address the overall funding issues from the loss of federal funding. It's a sad situation that needs to be addressed with a long-term fix in mind. We need our libraries."
The closure of the county's 15 library branches April 6 marked the largest library system shutdown in U.S. history.
"I was really shocked when I found out the public libraries were going to close," said Ashland High School sophomore Alyx Gerber. "We live in a world based on education, and adults are constantly pushing us to go to college and get scholarships. It's kind of counterintuitive to shut down libraries when they are an opening to so much knowledge."
School officials say public libraries play a critical role in student research and in fostering lifelong literacy among children through reading programs and a fresh supply of reading materials.
Some public high school librarians this week reported a constant flow of students requesting publications absent from school shelves for research papers. The most complaints came from seniors who must complete an in-depth research project to graduate, they said.
"The public libraries act as an additional resource for our students," said Tim Mobley, instructional services director at the Phoenix-Talent district. "Our school libraries are pretty limited in their selections, they're more restrictive. Public libraries are less restrictive, have more periodicals and newspapers."
In the Medford district, seniors have completed the research for their graduation projects, but the library closure could affect them next year.
"Where I'm getting the most questions now is from Honors English students who are required to read books from a summer reading list," said South Medford High English teacher Gayle Mitchell. "They ask me, 'How am I going to find books for the reading list?' I don't know what to say. What can I say, other than 'Go to the bookstore,' and not all students can afford to do that."
In their final research papers for American studies class, students at Ashland High said they are trying to supplement the lack of books with resources from the Internet, but teachers generally require at least one print source for each paper.
For some low-income students, the public libraries were their only source of reading materials during the summer and their only access to the Internet outside of school.
In the past year, more than 36,000 children participated in the county's library reading programs, and more than 434,000 children's books were checked out.
Kathy Greager, a Medford district resident, said she doesn't know how her three children will spend their summer without the libraries.
"I hope they're not getting the message that if they can't afford books, their education doesn't matter, but that's the message I'm getting," Greager said. "My kids love the library, and it's heartbreaking to have to explain why they can't go."
Since Ashland High sophomore Tess McWhorter was 4 years old, she has spent her summers hungrily reading books she checked out from the local public library, she said.
"Last summer, I read five books a week and then went back to get more," Tess said. "Now, I don't have that option to check out books."
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.