Summer reading is latest budget-cutback victim

By Cody Calamaio
The Gazette
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Montgomery County Public Library officials are hoping to prove that children's love of reading goes beyond prizes and T-shirts.

Decreased staffing -- a result of county budget cuts -- has forced the library system to suspend participation in the popular statewide summer reading program, said Michele Sellars, the system's public services administrator for community engagement and outreach. The system is decreasing hours at most branches and shuffling many employees to new locations.

As part of a 23 percent reduction in funding for fiscal 2011, the system will lose 78 positions, said county library business manager Eric Carzon. Fiscal 2010 budget cuts forced the system to eliminate 60 positions. The library systems fiscal 2011 budget is $28.9 million, down from previous year's $37.7 million.

Montgomery is the only county in the state suspending its participation in the Maryland State Department of Education's summer reading program, said Bill Reinhard, a department spokesman.

"I think it's unacceptable that Montgomery County is the only county not to participate in it," said Ari Brooks, executive director of Friends of the Library Montgomery County, a volunteer support group. The nonprofit organization usually pays the $45,000 needed for the summer program.

"We have the money to fund it; that's not the issue," Brooks said. "I think they were being careful and cautious until things shook out and they knew if they had staffing capacity to run the program."

Previously, children who registered for the county's summer reading program received a game board to track their progress, incentives for completing tasks and a T-shirt and certificate for finishing the program. No game boards will be available this year, although some programs will continue.

This year, Friends of the Library Montgomery County is sponsoring and managing several countywide children's programs, such as puppet shows, performances and educational presentations. Local Friends chapters might provide other programs.

Last year, 23,000 children signed up for Montgomery's summer reading program, Carzon said.

"It was very staff-intensive in the way it was done," he said. "So much was going into the little pieces of plastic and stuff. There was all this paperwork to do, managing certificates and managing shirts; it's a huge time drain. Having 20 percent less staff to do the program, you just can't have them deployed running around doing these little tasks."

Libraries also will be limited to having three staff-run early literacy development programs per month, Carzon said. These programs, such as preschool story times, are run by librarians. Staff-run adult programs, such as librarian reading groups, also have been cut.

About 200,000 people attend programs every year, Carzon said, but staffing the library counter, which receives 1 million requests for help each year, must be the first priority.

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