New Orleans literacy programs could hang in the balance with May 2 vote on library funding



New Orleans aims to be one of the most literate cities in the U.S. by its tricentennial celebrations in 2018. But more than 40 percent of the city's adults struggle with basic literacy, and the New Orleans Community Data Center estimates that more than a quarter of the city's workforce struggles with basic reading, writing and computer comprehension.

The New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) is leading the effort to improve literacy in the city. The library's foundation supports its literacy programs Turn The Page and Every Child Ready To Read, a pre-literacy program that works with daycares, parents and other caregivers to instill the importance of reading and prepare children to learn how to read. The library also offers space free-of-charge to literacy programs from the YMCA. Last year, as NOPL presented its budget to the New Orleans City Council, the YMCA Educational Services program director said losing that space would be disastrous.

Now NOPL stares down a vote on Saturday, May 2 when New Orleanians will decide whether to support a 2.5-mill property tax to fund the libraries, their programs and services. If that fails, will the city and the library have to adjust its 2018 timeline?

"We would," said library director Charles Brown. "It certainly would have an impact on it."

This afternoon, Brown, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, members of City Council and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman made their plea to voters to support the millage proposition this Saturday. The May 2 ballot also includes a measure to redirect an existing millage to help fund the jail's construction, in turn freeing up funding for paying for the federal consent decree and other services. Landrieu said he will vote in favor of both measures.

"We have to make sure they have the necessary monies required not only to keep the libraries open but to make sure we have expanded services. One of our goals in this city is to make sure every child knows how to read. We want to become one of the most literate cities in America by 2018," Landrieu said. "If the millage fails, we're going to have to suffer the consequences, which means massive cutbacks to the library hours and services and possibly even complete branch closures, which nobody in the city wants to accomplish."

"There is no fluff here," said District A City Councilmember Susan Guidry, adding that if the millage propositions fail, "We'll be digging into our general tax dollars, and it will hurt."

Brown says one of NOPL's bigger-picture efforts is "moving the library beyond the four walls of the building and taking it out into the community" with its services, including literacy efforts. 

"The most important thing is for parents to read to their child," he told Gambit. "There are so many young children in New Orleans whose parents don't read to them. In kindergarten they don't know what a book is. They've never held a pencil. We really want to introduce those individuals to reading at a very early age. ... That's an area that will be impacted if we're not successful on Saturday."

Brown said 3,800 people have voted as of the close of early voting last week. "We just don't know what Saturday will look like," he said.

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