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Dana Scott hasn’t received a pay raise since the start of 2021.
Scott, a librarian with 17 years of experience, has run the Marion County Library in North Arkansas for nearly seven years, and the library board of trustees has approved a merit pay raise for her every year. For the third year in a row, however, the all-Republican Marion County Quorum Court has amended the library budget to deny Scott a raise. She currently makes $41,552 per year.
Library staff and trustees have raised concerns that the quorum court is improperly infringing on the trustees’ authority to oversee the library’s finances, staff and operations. Quorum court members have said they are acting within their authority under Arkansas law.
Librarian Suzy McVay asked the quorum court at its Dec. 12 meeting to “do the right thing” and accept the raise that the library board proposed for Scott, especially since other county employees have received raises or will receive them next year.
“I believe that she is being discriminated against and that this is an abuse of the separation of powers doctrine,” McVay said.
Quorum court members did not respond to McVay’s comments on Dec. 12. The court passed Marion County’s 2024 budget on Dec. 19 and did not approve Scott’s raise.
At past meetings, they have made statements about the way Scott runs the library, which she, McVay and library board members have said are false.
The dispute in Marion County echoes controversies in other Arkansas counties over how much authority elected officials do or don’t have over public libraries. Libraries are nonpartisan public entities but have become targets of conservative scrutiny nationwide. Elected officials in different parts of Arkansas have tried to exert control over libraries in the past few years, sometimes in the form of quibbles over budgetary details and other times in the form of overt criticism and hostility.
I don’t know what their endgame is, and I don’t understand it… If they have problems with me, why aren’t they bringing these problems up?
– Dana Scott, Marion County Library director, on the county quorum court’s behavior
This has led to turnover in both library management and the five-member boards state law requires to oversee public libraries. Meanwhile, librarians and board members who remain in their positions say they feel intimidated and sometimes threatened.
In recent years, the primary conservative complaint about public libraries has been the availability of books about LGBTQ+ people, sex education and systemic racism.
Marion County officials have not publicly expressed disapproval of any of the library’s materials.
However, the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library saw voters cut its funding in half last year after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library in 2021.
“It started with people calling the [county] judge’s office mad about what was happening at the library and thinking that the judge had more control than he does over the library,” said Tonya Ryals, the Craighead County library’s former assistant director. Ryals left in December 2021, partly due to harassment she said she and other librarians faced.
In Saline County earlier this year, library director Patty Hector refused the all-Republican quorum court’s recommendation to relocate books “that are not subject-matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery.” The court later shifted some power to hire and fire library staff from the library board to County Judge Matt Brumley, who in turn fired Hector.
In Crawford County, library system officials agreed to a “compromise” after citizens and quorum court members complained about LGBTQ+ materials. Librarians moved the books to segregated “social sections” accessible only to adults. Now the library and county officials are facing two lawsuits over the move.
Back in Marion County, McVay and library board president Curt Bryant both told the quorum court on Dec. 12 that the money for Scott’s proposed raise would come from state funds, not county funds.
“I really feel like [court members] are turning their back on us because they would like to have full control over our funding and everything else,” Bryant told the Arkansas Advocate.
Justice of the Peace John Reed said the dispute over Scott’s pay should be resolved by an appellate court rather than in local government meetings. He said county employees’ compensation should be based on skills and longevity, but not necessarily on education.
Scott has a master’s degree in library science, which Arkansas library directors are required to have in order for the library to receive state funds.
“If we add education [as a reason for a raise], then anybody in the county who works hard and gets a master’s degree is qualified for the same salary,” Reed said. “We have to be very, very careful about the standards we set.”
He said the library board “has legitimate concerns,” but the quorum court also “has a legitimate sense of jurisdiction” based on the authority given to county governments in Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 55.
Brumley cited the same amendment in June when he expressed support for the measure that later gave him power over the Saline County Library.
Marion County Quorum Court members have said Scott shouldn’t get a raise because she shouldn’t make more money than the county judge does. Scott does not currently out-earn County Judge Jason Stumph and still would not do so next year even if she receives the library board’s proposed pay raise, which would make her salary $50,148.
Stumph is scheduled to receive a raise in 2024, according to county budget documents, and would make $50,582. He also receives $4,200 in insurance benefits from the county while Scott does not.
A quorum court member criticized Scott for working from home at their November budget meeting. Scott replied that she does not work from home because the quorum court requested but never approved a proposed policy that would have allowed her to do so. Scott lives in Branson, Missouri and drives nearly three hours round-trip every weekday to work at the Yellville library.
Another quorum court member told Scott it was not “fair to the community” that the library is not open on Saturdays; Scott said the library used to receive so few patrons on Saturdays that it was not worth being open those days.
Scott declined to be interviewed by the Arkansas Advocate, but she expressed her frustration with the quorum court at the November library board meeting. Library funding comes not only from the state but also from a dedicated county tax millage, and county elected officials do not have access to this money, she said.
“Even if they get rid of me and they get rid of [the library board], they still can’t touch that money because it was voted on to be for the library,” Scott said. “I don’t know what their endgame is, and I don’t understand it, and it would be great if any of these people would call us… If they have problems with me, why aren’t they bringing these problems up?”
Misinformation about library operations and funding are not unique to Marion County. In August of this year, Crawford County Justice of the Peace Jayson Peppas successfully moved for the quorum court to table a proposed $10,000 grant from the American Library Association (ALA), a nonprofit library advocacy group. The grant was designated to make the Alma library branch’s front doors accessible to people with physical disabilities.
Peppas claimed that accepting money from the ALA would require the library to carry books that he and others considered inappropriate for children. Interim library director Eva White told Peppas this was not true, and the quorum court accepted the grant in September.
The American Library Association provides training, resources and occasional help securing federal grants to public libraries. Conservatives nationwide have falsely claimed the ALA has a political agenda and forces content about sexual activity and LGBTQ+ topics onto children.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, said the state should withhold funding from the Arkansas Library Association (ArLA), the state chapter of the ALA, after ArLA president, Carol Coffey, declined an invitation to speak to a legislative committee in October. Sullivan and other legislators called Coffey’s decision disrespectful and claimed ArLA is accountable to the state.
In reality, ArLA receives no state funding and never has, Coffey said. She declined to speak to lawmakers because ArLA is among 18 plaintiffs suing the state over Act 372 of 2023, which Sullivan sponsored.
Act 372 would alter libraries’ material reconsideration processes and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute content that some consider “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” Supporters of the law have said it should be used to prevent minors from accessing LGBTQ+ content. Opponents have called it censorship and said libraries already have effective processes to challenge and reconsider materials.
Crawford County and County Judge Chris Keith are defendants in both the lawsuit against Act 372 and a separate lawsuit from three parents in the county who claim the “social sections” at the library violate the First Amendment.
A federal judge denied the parents’ request for an injunction in September.
Harassment and funding cuts
Craighead County citizens who opposed the library’s LGBTQ+ book display in 2021 shifted their message in 2022 and claimed the library was overfunded, citing financial information obtained via the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Ryals, the library’s former assistant director, said the “barrage” of FOIA requests amounted to harassment. Requesters sued the library twice, claiming violation of the FOIA. One suit resulted in the requester winning; the second one resulted in a settlement, according to the Jonesboro Sun.
Craighead County Justice of the Peace Darrel Cook sent the library multiple FOIA requests and filed the second lawsuit. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cook opposed the availability of LGBTQ+ content and donated $1,000 to Craighead Citizens Taxed Enough, the group that supported the ballot measure to cut the library’s funding via a millage decrease. The measure passed by a narrow margin in November 2022.
Hector, the former Saline County library director, said in May that she and her staff had also received several FOIA requests from Saline County residents who wanted LGBTQ+ books kept away from minors. The residents said at quorum court meetings that they believed both the financial information and the library’s slow FOIA response time were signs of misconduct.
After Hector defended herself and the library’s collection before the quorum court in May, saying “there is nothing wrong with these books,” Brumley reprimanded her and the library board at its meeting the following week. The board tabled a resolution that would have given Brumley power to relocate or remove library books.
The quorum court’s next meeting in June included the first reading of the amended county ordinance that would pass in August and give Brumley authority over the library system’s staff, operations and budget. Justice of the Peace Jim Whitley, the primary sponsor of the recommendation for the library to relocate books, said he believed the library had too much “authority and autonomy… with this amount of money and this level of responsibility.”
In Crawford County, Peppas said at the December 2022 quorum court meeting that he would urge his constituents to work to reduce the library’s tax millage if librarians did not keep LGBTQ+ books away from minors, according to meeting minutes.
Deidre Grzymala, the library director at the time, told the quorum court that the library had started to segregate LGBTQ+ children’s books, but she also emphasized the library contained books about Christianity and that she took her job as a librarian seriously. Peppas replied that no one was saying Grzymala should fear for her job.
After the library segregated LGBTQ+ children’s books, three library board members resigned. The quorum court appointed Tammi Hamby, who had said publicly that these books were “grooming” children, to fill one of the board vacancies, and the board made her chairwoman in January of this year.
Peppas and another quorum court member, Jason Cox, started attending library board meetings after Hamby’s appointment. The officials “just seemed to stand there trying to look intimidating” and tried to “antagonize” people who attended the meeting to stand up for Grzymala, said Monica Macomber, a Crawford County resident who has spoken in support of the library before the quorum court.
“They weren’t acting in the quorum court [capacity], but they were in public, seeming to intimidate people who did not support their actions and the actions of the new board members,” said Macomber, who is now challenging Cox for his seat on the quorum court.
Grzymala resigned in February. Her departure proved that intimidation worked despite Peppas’ earlier reassurance, Macomber said.
“They didn’t fire her or get her fired, but it had the same outcome,” she said. “…They’re all going to say they never passed an ordinance to do anything to the library, but [there was] a threat of an ordinance… and having [Peppas’] constituents initiate a ballot measure for reducing millage.”
Meanwhile in Marion County, multiple witnesses said a member of the quorum court approached and berated someone who was reading to children at a holiday event in Yellville, unrelated to the library, earlier this month. The community member in question was unable to leave the situation due to a physical disability.
Linda Ramos, president of Friends of the Marion County Library, said she will file a complaint against the quorum court member with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
Impact on libraries and communities
Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library director Vanessa Adams told the Democrat-Gazette last month that the library has cut 13 employees to adjust to the loss of funding, and the library announced Tuesday that it will reduce its hours of operation, including being closed on Sundays.
Community members in Craighead and Saline counties organized in support of their local libraries in response to conservative hostility. Organizing has continued even after losses of funding and staff, with library advocates running for quorum court positions in both counties.
Hector told the Arkansas Advocate in October she was relieved to be fired after Saline County officials “held the axe over [her] head” for months. She has said she plans to respond with legal action, and in November she filed to run for a seat on the quorum court next year.
Library board trustees in all four counties have resigned during conflicts between the library and the quorum court. New appointments to the library board require quorum court approval, and new library board members have been more sympathetic to the quorum court than to the library, according to people in all four counties.
Ten months after Grzymala’s resignation, the Crawford County Library System board still hasn’t picked her successor, with White still serving on an interim basis. The board did not interview two applicants and instead reduced the requirements in the job description in September, making it so an applicant could be working toward a master’s degree and not yet have one, according to TalkBusiness. The board interviewed two applicants in November but did not make a decision.
Marion County’s library board has seen three new members in the past two years, and some of them are not library patrons and do not have library cards, board member Peggy Pentkowski said.
In October, the Marion County Quorum Court did not vote on a request to transfer money from county funds to the library budget due to a clerical error in paying a utility bill. The motion to take up the issue died for lack of a second.
Justice of the Peace Talon VanCuren said later in the meeting that he felt audience members were being disrespectful toward him over the issue.
“I promise you I will vote no — I don’t care how good the thing is — if I’m disrespected like that again,” he said.
During the Dec. 12 quorum court meeting, VanCuren left the room while McVay, Bryant and others spoke in support of Scott and the library.
Pentkowski said she recently tried to discuss the library with another quorum court member one-on-one, but the official refused to talk about anything related to money.
“I was so upset and depressed about the whole meeting that I just about came in and told Dana, ‘I think I’m done with the board,’ but I’m not going to do that, because [the quorum court] would love that,” Pentkowski said.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.