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Public libraries vs. private management

Jackson County Library District board members are rightfully voicing concerns about the private company that operates the district's 15 libraries, but they may find that the five-year contract with the company limits their options until 2020. Meanwhile, the district should make the best of the situation, arguing firmly for what it wants and insisting on as much transparency as possible.

The company, Library Systems and Services, known as LS&S, operates library systems across the United States. It first took over Jackson County libraries in 2007 after the county had closed them in a cost-cutting move. The county contracted with what was then known as LSSI to operate the system at reduced hours. Library workers became employees of LSSI, not county employees.

In 2014, county voters approved the formation of the Jackson County Library District and a property tax levy to fund it. The newly elected board signed a new contract with LS&S in 2015, which expires in 2020.

Board members now appear to be suffering buyer's remorse as they discover things about the contract that they would like to change.

Specifically, board members are concerned about the low salaries paid to library workers and how much profit LS&S is making on the contract. Other sticking points include surprise bills, such as one for work library staff did on a strategic plan, and an effort to extract funds from a separate contract allowing Rogue Community College to use the Medford branch.

Those concerns are valid, but the board is hampered by the fact that LS&S is a private company and is not required to disclose things like profit margins and the salaries it pays employees.

Board members should go over the contract thoroughly, with the advice of a qualified attorney, to  make sure LS&S is living up to its obligations and to determine exactly what the district's options are. It may well be that the district is locked into the contract until 2020, but even if a case could be made that LS&S isn't living up to its side of the deal, doing battle with corporate lawyers might be more expensive than it's worth.

Meanwhile, the district should deal firmly with the company, and do so publicly. If it wants to increase employee salaries, it should make sure any extra money paid to LS&S goes to employees, not to company profits.

If, as board members have suggested, the district could provide better pay and better service to patrons by running the library itself rather than paying LS&S, the choice is clear. The only question is how long it will take to end the contract.