By Sam Fuqua
The library district proposal is now officially on the ballot this November.
When I was on the school board, one of our ongoing commitments was to communicate the shared value of high-quality public education to the entire community, even though only about 25% to 30% of households in the district actually have children in the K-12 schools at any given time. With our public libraries, it’s a little different, since people of all ages use the library every day. But the current municipal funding model is not working for our libraries. Like our public schools, we need an independent district model to ensure sustainable long-term funding for our library system.
Many of the library’s programs have been downsized or discontinued, and are at risk of further cuts.
Here’s some of what the library district proposal will do:
- restore hours to the branches and the BLDG 61 Makerspace;
- restart outreach programs to underserved groups like the immigrant, low-income, Latino and senior members of our community;
- address long-delayed building infrastructure issues;
- reopen the Canyon theater for public use;
- reopen the Carnegie Library, our amazing repository of local history.
A district would also make it possible to stock and staff a new full-size North Boulder Library and — after years of demand — establish a Gunbarrel corner library.
Despite operating on unreliable funding, and despite the rapid increase in demand for services, Boulder’s libraries deliver irreplaceable community value. There’s home delivery to seniors, free access to newspapers both locally and nationally, adult literacy classes, reading tutors, free public meeting rooms, a makerspace where kids and their parents work alongside inventors and entrepreneurs, bilingual storytimes, and citizenship classes for recent immigrants.
All of these current initiatives are in peril.
Some argue that the City of Boulder should simply commit to giving the library more general fund dollars. The problem with this argument is that asking the council to do better with library funding would be a one-year commitment, at best, as councilmembers cycle and political winds shift. When the library fights for funding alongside other critical city departments like police and fire, it almost never wins. And in a crisis like the pandemic, the library bears a lion’s share of cuts due to the loss of sales tax revenues. Those cuts are often permanent.
Because library programs are all at risk of being cut in the current funding model, that leaves supporters with one option: form and fund a district via a vote of the people.
Over 50 library systems in Colorado operate under the district model, including every system with a similar size and patron base as Boulder. It’s the most common form of library governance in the state. This is a proven model that offers the most equitable, reliable and accountable approach to funding our libraries. A board of trustees appointed by the city and county would oversee the library district and ensure transparency in operations.
Over 30% of library cardholders live outside the city. The proposed library district boundary includes most of these cardholders, who live in unincorporated areas of the county adjoining the city limits. The Boulder Library Champions listened to input from the city and county, and have adjusted the district proposal down to 3.5 mills, rather than 3.8, and removed Niwot from the boundaries.
Properly funded libraries can transform communities. Properly funding our library means letting it do the things it’s supposed to be doing: supporting our schools in their efforts to teach kids how to read, providing a space for seniors and families, and allowing every single resident, regardless of income status, access to books and programs. And it means restoring hours to our well-used branches and leveling programs and services back up to match demand.
The promise of public libraries, like public schools, rests on a shared commitment to free and open access, high-quality resources and a belief that helping each person realize their full potential helps our entire community. That’s why I’ll be voting yes on the Boulder library district this November — to ensure the library has the funding it needs to do the work that it does so well.
Sam Fuqua is a member of the Boulder Library Champions. He’s a former Boulder Library Commissioner and former member and past president of the Boulder Valley Board of Education.