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Posted: August 9, 2012 5:17 p.m.

Literacy starts early

Kim Degonia has a pretty full plate as it is. She's a part-time magistrate judge for Newton County and a municipal judge in Porterdale. She and her husband have three boys, ages 5, 9 and 11, whom she calls "trouble," and she teaches yoga on the side "to preserve my sanity," she laughs.

Now, she's the face of a passionate citizen movement to generate new funding for the children's library of the Newton County library system that operates three facilities. She took her case to the Covington City Council and the county board of commissioners this week, backed by a contingent of supporters who believe in the importance of childhood literacy and are concerned about what appears to be a lack of attention to children's services at the library. She cited hundreds of books not shelved, empty shelves, torn carpet and the lack of a full-time professional in the children's room. She asked for a committee of city and county representatives to work with concerned parents on additional funding and fundraising. It was only two years ago that our library topped all other libraries in the state in the nationally recognized Hennen's American Public Library Ratings. The ranking identified how well a library is serving its community with available funds.

At the council, members Chris Smith and Janet Goodman questioned giving more city money to the library, funded primarily by the county and the state. Smith said the city gives $30,000, but he was wrong: the city only gives $15,000, according to the library's financial manager Marcia Allen. However, Mayor Ronnie Johnston and council members Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin agreed to join the committee, with the council declining more funds at this time.

When Degonia met with the board of commissioners Tuesday evening, she might as well have been talking to the wall, except for Chair Kathy Morgan and commissioner Nancy Schulz, both of whom agreed to join the committee. Mort Ewing prides himself a Southern gentleman, but the swiftness with which he moved to change the subject proved he's anything but. Onlookers were slack-jawed.

Nevertheless, Degonia said she's been "astounded by the response from the community, even just people on the street" and sees "lots of opportunities" to address the issue of funding for the library. "I think a lot of people have been suffering cutbacks in library funding in silence," she said, expressing hope that having an issue to rally around will encourage more citizen and volunteer involvement with the library.

Having a literate population is vital to the county's attraction as a site for new development, and literacy starts early, she believes. That's exactly what gave rise 10 years ago to the Newton County Literacy Festival, set for Sunday, Sept. 23, from 2 to 5 p.m. on the square. Main Street Director Josephine Kelly said a chamber of commerce survey a decade ago "identified local literacy levels as a concern that impacts workforce readiness." Some 30 local partners sponsor the event annually.

Newton County Library Director Lace Keaton said, "It's wonderful to work in a community where people are so passionate about the library." State libraries have suffered vicious budget cuts by the state, some 3 percent just this year and another 3 percent just announced. "Everything that's going on at the library is budget-driven," she said. The county's library budget has remained consistent in the face of state cuts, said Allen, the finance officer.

The library lost employees when the State Health Benefit Plan raised precipitously the percentage of payroll the library paid for employee benefits to a flat fee of more than $900 per month per employee. When libraries protested, the program cut it back $200, but it will go back up in two years, according to library board chair Lois Upham. The original increase would have cost the library another $89,000 this year. People lost their jobs, had their hours cut back or quit because of the impact. "We're managing the cutbacks in funding and personnel by efficiencies and frugality," Upham said. She knows of some entire library systems that are in danger of closing due to state budget cuts and new employee mandates.

The full-time children's librarian Carol Durusau has new duties in management and materials acquisition, but still serves as children's librarian, just not at a dedicated desk in the children's room, she said. All three Newton library facilities employ trained children's professionals. This library - as well as libraries statewide - has created a one-stop patron point of service for all requests. "It's just the way libraries are being configured today," Upham said. "It's as if we're remodeling a house. It will look the same outside, but it's going to be different inside."

Degonia welcomes more public participation in the effort to bring the children's library up to standards parents and kids want to see. If you want to volunteer, you can contact her at kimdegonia@bellsouth.net.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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