Arkansas Library, Facing Pushback to Pride Display, Fights Ballot Referendum To Slash Budget by Half

Voters in Craighead County, AR, will soon decide whether to roll back library tax revenue by half—from two mills to one—after a citizen’s group with regional Tea Party backing succeeded in getting that question on the November 8 ballot.

Craighead County Jonesboro PL logoVoters in Craighead County, AR, will soon decide whether to roll back library tax revenue by half—from two mills to one—after a citizen’s group with regional Tea Party backing succeeded in getting that question on the November 8 ballot.

It’s been a stormy 18 months for the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library (CCJPL), regardless of how the vote turns out. A gay pride display in June 2021 gained CCJPL some unwanted media attention and the scrutiny of local conservatives.

By the end of 2021, one library director had left the system. Another, who took over on an interim basis, departed shortly after. In late September, Citizens Taxed Enough, a group that includes members of the Northeast Arkansas Tea Party, collected the required 100 verified signatures to get the issue before voters. Iris Stevens, who chairs Citizens Taxed Enough, says county taxpayers should pay less for a library system that lacks proper financial “oversight” and is already flush with a $6 million surplus.

Opposition forces coalesced as the group Save Our Libraries, which formed after the referendum made its way on the ballot. Its leader is Phyllis Burkett, herself a former CCJPL director who retired in 2013.

Both sides have established Facebook pages, given interviews to area media outlets, accepted donations to better wage effective campaigns, and even squared off on October 26 in a debate sponsored by the area Kiwanis Club.

Robin Martin, an accountant and treasurer of Citizens Taxed Enough, represented her group at the debate. “This is a tax cut that will benefit us all personally,” she said. “Nobody here is trying to defund the library and take all their money away.”

Arguing the Save Our Libraries position, Burkett said, “As a public institution, we are obliged to look to the future.” She said CCJPL’s funding model allows it to pay for popular outreach services and eventually plan for needed physical improvements.

Jonesboro, a city of about 75,000, is home to CCJPL’s main library. There are four satellite branches, most in poorer, rural areas. Total staffing is 41 FTEs with 26 more part-timers. The 2022 budget is $4,452,148, Library Director Vanessa Adams said, adding that usage is strong: the main branch gets 4,000 to 5,000 visitors per week and total CCJPL visitors top 100,000 annually.

“The effect of having our budget cut in half would be just like having a household budget cut in half,” Adams told Library Journal. “We would have to drastically cut back on everything.” That includes staff, outreach services, and materials, she added. “We will definitely be looking at closing branches.”

Countered Stevens: “That’s an absolute lie. Our accountants have proved it.… None of that’s going to happen. They went into hysterical mode.”

As in any political contest, money will be an important factor in how the rollback initiative is decided. Nora Roberts, a New York Times bestselling author, recently donated $25,000 to Save Our Libraries, following her $50,000 donation to a defunded library in Michigan.

Roberts, through her publicist, issued this statement on behalf of CCJPL: “Libraries are treasures, opening the door to books and stories for all. Librarians, to me, are the guardians of those stories. I find the idea of librarians—who offer community services beyond reading—facing threats and attacks, a community library facing defunding, both appalling and sad.”

A report filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission shows Citizens Taxed Enough got $1,000 from Craighead County Justice of the Peace Darrell Cook. Martin and Sharon Stallings, the group’s secretary, each donated $500.

Stevens rejected characterization of Citizens Taxed Enough as anti-library and said the group’s efforts to roll back tax revenue were not intended as retribution for the gay pride display. “We believe things should be proportional,” Stevens said. “Our work began several months before anyone saw the gay pride display.”



But that display certainly became a turning point for CCJPL, said David Eckert, library director at the time. There was a smaller controversy in 2019, when some in the community opposed allowing school children to attend a program by trans author Meredith Russo. Two of three sessions for teens were canceled, but the one that did take place drew a large and supportive audience, Eckert said.

In June 2021, the Jonesboro library, as in previous years, created a Pride month display with books related to LBGTQIA+ topics. At first, Eckert said, patrons voiced no objections. That changed, he added, toward the end of the month, especially after a photo of the display was posted on a Tea Party Facebook page.

On June 25, the local Jonesboro Sun newspaper published a guest column by Stephanie Nichols, wife of a library board member, under the headline: “Critical error in judgment by library’s leadership.”

In the piece, Nichols, an attorney for the faith-based nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which advocates for the recriminalization of LGBTQIA+ sexual acts, wrote, “Children should be reading quality literature—not being propagandized by library employees and authors attempting to social engineer them into becoming little LGBT activists.”

The display was removed at the end of June, as planned, but Eckert said angry posts on social media persisted. “Just all kinds of stuff,” Eckert said of “ugly” comments attacking CCJPL. There were plenty of supportive posts, Eckert emphasized, but he said the online blitz eventually took a toll on library staff, resulting in the resignation of two unnamed employees he supervised.

In August 2021, two library board members floated policies granting that body line-item approval of CCJPL events, displays, and purchases for materials deemed sensitive. Those proposals failed to gain sufficient support for adoption.

Two months later, Eckert announced CCJPL was transferring 12 books, all on topics related to sexuality, gender, and family, from the children’s section to the parent-teacher area. All remained available for checkout.

That move came just days after a contentious board meeting featuring multiple speakers, some of whom accused the library of making pornographic and inappropriate material available to young readers.

Meanwhile, the library was inundated by Freedom of Information Act requests. Sarah Keath, CCJPL’s business manager, put the number at “50–55 requests,” most with multiple parts, requiring action by staff under state law.

“Most of those requests were financial in nature,” Keath said, “followed by requests about books in our collection.”

In November 2021, Eckert resigned from CCJPL to take a job as a library director in Waterloo, IA. His departure was effective on January 1.

“Indirectly I would tell you that was why I left,” Eckert said of the furor caused by the gay pride display. “I just didn’t see a solution to the problem. Ultimately, I thought, maybe if I leave, things will calm down. Unfortunately, it did not calm down.”

Eckert was succeeded by Adams, who started in late February. Tonya Ryals, the assistant director under Eckert, briefly held the top post on an interim basis, but she resigned a month after her predecessor. Ryals did stay on at CCJPL until Adams’ arrival. She now works as a consultant for the Vermont Department of Libraries.



CCJPL’s funding was set at two mills in 1994. Jennifer Chilcoat, director of the Arkansas State Library, said it’s one of nine libraries collecting tax revenue at that level, while 34 receive one mill, and 11 more get “somewhere in between.”

CCJPL also receives “about $250,000” in state funds, Adams said, with other small amounts from donations and miscellaneous fees.

Stevens said CCJPL currently has a $6 million surplus, but Adams called that figure “very misleading.” The library director said, “It takes about $4.5 million to operate the library for one year. Since we are forward-funded, $4.5 million of the $6 million is next year's budget. The remainder is partly endowment funds, which were donations, and some of that is surplus from the pandemic years when we offered very little in the way of services since we were closed a portion of that time.”

Critics have latched upon the notion of forward-funding as evidence that CCJPL has plenty of operating money and could stave off dire service reductions for years even if the millage is halved.

“No business is forward-funded,” said State Sen. Dan Sullivan, who has publicly backed efforts to halve the library millage. “None of our farmers are forward-funded. Why do they get to be forward-funded?”

Early voting began on October 24 in Arkansas, and the two sides were due to debate again on Friday at the Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce. “I am absolutely optimistic,” Adams said. “The feedback I am receiving is overwhelmingly positive. I’ve spoken to hundreds of people in the last few weeks who agree that the library is important to our community and they have shared many stories with me about what the library has meant to them.”

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