There appears to have been some confusion between Mayor Karl Dean and leaders of Metro Nashville Public Schools over library consolidation.
On Thursday, the Mayor’s Office made public a letter sent by Dean to Chris Henson, interim director of MNPS, which confirmed an apparent conversation between Dean and Henson about the consolidation of city and school library services.
Dean states in the letter that consolidation is set to begin its first phase in January, starting with high school libraries.
Then, just before 5 p.m. Thursday, the school district made public a letter of its own, written to Dean by Board of Education Chair David Fox. Fox states in the letter that it is his intention to make a few clarifications, including the fact that the library-related conversation between Henson and Dean was brief and informal.
Fox wrote that the decision to consolidate library services is one that would necessarily be considered by the School Board before being enacted, and though the board is receptive to the matter, it has not been discussed.
Janel Lacy, spokesperson for Dean, said the Mayor’s Office staff did not “understand” much of Fox’s letter, but plans to move forward with the idea.
“We don’t understand most of his letter, but he agrees this is a good idea. It is a good idea — one that’s long overdue, in fact,” Lacy said. “We are going to move forward with it, and as we do, it’s certainly something that should be publicly discussed. That’s why we brought it to the public’s attention.”
Earlier in the day, prior to the school district response, Dean spoke with The City Paper about the benefits of library consolidation just before taking part in a larger media event to discuss the matter at a Metro library.
“Thinking outside the box, doing things in a rational way, we can ramp up our game dramatically,” Dean said. “If we bring this into our schools, we could have the best school libraries in America.”
The letter from Dean to Henson identifies a recommended timeline for the consolidation, including preparation beginning in January 2009 and combination of the procurement of materials taking effect July 1. The mayor believes that consolidated materials procurement would save money through economies of scale, a combined check-out system would improve efficiency, and that library spaces would become more “attractive and comfortable.”
When asked who would be in charge of the combined system, Dean said the details of management could be determined over time. In the long run, he expects the initiative would not be budget-neutral, though increased expenditures related to the effort would not all take place immediately.
He highlighted the role a consolidated library system could play in other initiatives he is working on, including efforts to develop a network of after-school programs for middle school students across the city. A consolidated library system could, he said, have after-school hours and run programs similar to those run by Metro libraries for children and teenagers.
School libraries also could be supported by the effort by tapping into the existing donor base supporting the Metro libraries, Dean said.
“There’s no sense in running two duplicate systems side by side,” Dean said.
Fox said Thursday evening that he is not opposed to the idea, and is receptive to any means of improving schools. However, the “tone and content” of the letter — as well as the implication that there could be a “transfer of governance over the libraries” — caught district leaders by surprise.
“There’s a built-in assumption that the mayor is now in charge of the school system’s libraries,” Fox said. “I’m not sure how he arrived at that.”
Fox said school board and school district officials were notified of the letter mid-morning. He said he attempted to contact the Mayor’s Office about the matter and was told his message would be passed to Dean, but last night Fox said Dean had not called. The Mayor’s Office press event for discussion of the idea took place at 3:30 p.m.
Fox told The City Paper that Henson is currently out of town, but that he told Fox the conversation with Dean took place over a matter of minutes while Dean and Henson were participating in an education-related event in Orlando, Fla., last week.
The conversation appeared to be “exploratory” and “confidential,” Fox said in his letter to Dean.
“Your reference to a conversation with Mr. Henson about consolidating Metro Nashville and MNPS library services gives the false impression that Mr. Henson has engaged in a meaningful conversation with you on this topic,” Fox wrote in the letter. “Having today spoken with Mr. Henson, I now know the brief conversation several days ago consisted of your informing him that you are interested in exploring a consolidation of library services and his reply that that could be an interesting concept to look into.”
The second matter Fox intended to clarify with the letter, he said, is that a “change of this magnitude” would require the involvement of the school board, as well as district staff members.
Fox said he felt it was important for everyone Dean’s initial letter reached — a group including members of the media and others, Fox said — that Henson had not “divested the library system” without consulting the school board.
“You have the school system, and then the rest of Metro government. If there’s an effort to have this sort of collaboration, … the school board needs to give some sort of consent on the front end,” Fox said.