Tensions run high between Farmington Library staff, board

Over the past several electronic Board of Trustees meetings, Farmington Community Library (FCL) staff have become increasingly vocal about board actions in light of – and even before – the COVID-19 pandemic.

Librarians have said they continued to work for several weeks after libraries had been closed, researching new materials, buying e-books, preparing regular book orders, developing alternative programs, and more. With 82 of about 100 staff members furloughed, they said, remaining staff are overworked, and patrons who now have curbside access will see fewer new materials.

Staff members also seem concerned that a “Service Assessment Module” currently underway is simply a path to layoffs.

“I know some board members are of the opinion that staffing in our library is bloated,” technology specialist Michael Shereda said during a July 9 electronic board meeting. “Right-sizing is a term that has been used.”

Shereda said that the 64.5 percent of FCL’s budget devoted to staffing falls slightly below the national average of 67 percent reported by the American Library Association, and is in line with other metro Detroit library systems of similar size and caliber.

Head of Children’s Services Kristel Sexton said since the furlough, materials could not be processed and prepared for use because degreed staff were not available to order them. She pointed out that other Michigan librarians who were not furloughed had the opportunity to review library materials to ensure a diverse collection and remove materials that may be considered racist.

“We have not been able to do that crucial work and connect with community members of color to amplify their voices,” she said. “Just because patrons aren’t physically in the building doesn’t mean we aren’t able to serve them.”

Furlough decision explained

In an undated letter to staff, Board President Jim White and Vice President Bill Largent said the April 23 furlough decision included feedback from branch managers “that there was no means of stating with certainty that staff was doing work.”

Speaking Thursday, Steven Koponen said his wife, a furloughed employee, logged the hours she worked. “I’m wondering what the board did to reach out to employees to find out how they were working,” he said. “I know no one reached out to my wife.”

In their letter, White and Largent said the library’s income, which comes from local property taxes, will likely be affected by COVID-19-related mortgage forbearances and businesses failures. However, they added, “some board members, including Mr. Largent, do not agree that even if we have the money, people should continue to be paid.”

That attitude, they said, is “insensitive to the families of our community that fund the library” who may, themselves, be unemployed, as well as small business owners, who may be losing not only their income but their life savings.

“Continuing to pay staff when we have no physical customers is a decision a majority of
board decided against and remains committed to,” they added.

During the Thursday meeting, Shereda said that the demand for library services increases during economic downturns. In the 2008 housing market crash, he said, the library lost revenues, but saw “huge increases” in foot traffic and usage.

“Patrons in the community flock to us when they need those shared resources we offer. It can be the difference between them applying for jobs or remaining unemployed,” he said. “All the resources in the world won’t matter without the staff to organize and deliver those resources.”

Preserving capital

White and Largent also noted that the furloughs will preserve capital that is “critical to address current building needs…and is simply good, practical action in times of uncertainty.”

Anticipating uncertain revenues and expenditures, trustees recently approved a 2020-2021 budget that mirrors the previous year’s budget. In 2019-2020, the library collected $6.5 million in revenues and ended the year with a small surplus, boosting its fund balance to $2.7 million.

The fund balance is expected to grow as the library realizes savings from the furlough and building closures, which began in mid-March.

“The saving generated through reduced operations will be available not only for capital projects such as much needed new roofs, HVAC systems and controls, parking lots and concrete repair, new elevators, doors, etc., but also for new programs, services and offerings that will be prompted from
requests from the community, our customers, the people funding our operations,” White and Largent wrote.

Largent: ‘Different view’ of library operations

Chat comments during the Thursday meeting also focused on who is actually running the library, the Board of Directors or newly hired Library Director Riti Grover. Largent said that during interviews for the position, and in calls to libraries around the state two years ago, he heard that while boards have a role to play, librarians run libraries.

“I have an entirely different view,” he wrote. “While each staff member plays a role in delivering services to the community, it (is) the board that has been entrusted with managing the finances and providing strategic directions for the institution by hearing and listening to the voices of the entire
community. Library staff can and should add their voice, but recognize they are but one voice among many.”

Kristy Cooper, an Information Services Librarian at the Canton Public Library, a trustee for the Ypsilanti District Library, and founder of the Library Defense Network, said Thursday that while trustees assert they have authority over the director and over the library, “that is not what libraries do.”

“You’re in over your head in underestimating the people around you,” she said. “The entire State of Michigan library world is watching you now.”

‘Tattered’ trust

The letter to staff also addressed significant trust issues evident during recent meetings. Writing on his own, Largent described trust between the board and staff as “tattered”.

“If members of the board feel their initiatives are going to be sabotaged, then there is no desire to include staff,” he said. “You may feel this opinion to be unfair, wrong or insensitive but the recent actions directed at the board and Director appear to validate these beliefs.”

(Although its creator and origins are unclear, a petition that began circulating last week via ipetitions.com calls for Largent’s removal from the board. Read the petition, which as of Tuesday had 871 signatures, here: ipetitions.com/petition/restore-the-farmington-community-library-2.)

In the letter, Largent said the pandemic has intensified operating model disruptions caused by “rapid advancements in technology.” During his tenure, he said, “as we have witnessed continual declines in utilization, while incurring higher costs, any suggestions for change were met with fierce resistance. This is not sustainable.”

Staff members say they’ve had little opportunity to innovate with their numbers greatly reduced. Among those still on furlough are the branch managers who oversee staff at both the Farmington and Farmington Hills libraries.

Mary Lou Stropoli, who works in the Children’s Department, said that when schools closed, the library was unable to provide services to support parents forced to educate their children at home.

“This is a major disruption in library services that should, in my opinion, be more available in a time of crisis,” she said. “We should look for the type of innovation you described in your communication.”

Board has ‘highest confidence’ in Grover

Largent said while previous boards gave staff “broad latitude on all aspects of library operations… many critical portions of the library were neglected.” He pointed out that the current board members have years of experience in running organizations, businesses, and professional practices.

“And what we lack in the intricacies of libraries operations is more than accounted for by our Director, for whom we have the utmost respect and highest confidence, and by the board President, a librarian himself.”

“I believe I speak for the entire board when I say we would like you to be part of the future library. But first, you must accept that staff reports to the Director, who reports to the board,” Largent concluded.

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