Point Austin: Building Cathedrals

Public libraries and schools sustain a common culture

Point Austin: Building Cathedrals

Last Saturday, I was delighted to join several thousand of my closest friends in touring the new Central Library – an architectural marvel, a welcoming center for private learning as well as community engagement, a triumph of environmentally conscious construction, and soon, the intellectual anchor of a still-developing neighborhood and city. On a clear, cold morning, it was quite a celebratory event, and by early afternoon the crowd – including numerous children already clutching just-checked-out books – had become large enough to briefly overwhelm the lobby.

Like our libraries, our schools are indispensable centers of learning, research, and reflection.

If you couldn't make it Saturday, by all means visit as soon as you can. In his introductory remarks, Mayor Steve Adler described the new place as Austin's "municipal cathedral," referring to the building itself but also to the community time and effort that created it. He noted that Library Facilities Process Manager John Gillum (who for years has also provided the sustaining energy behind neighborhood library construction) began conceptual work in the early Nineties. It was gratifying to see Gillum and now retired Library Director Brenda Branch among Sat­ur­day's celebrants. The entire city owes them a great debt of thanks, for their enthusiasm, creativity, and diligence over many years – and thanks to the entire library staff, whose group effort is now embodied in a grand new city landmark. (The staff was even responsible for the hands-on transfer of 300,000 books to a space that has room for 300,000 more.)

Adler made a point of crediting his official predecessors – Bruce Todd, Will Wynn, and Lee Leffingwell – for supporting the planning and financing, then keeping the process moving after "planting the seeds." He called himself "the lucky son-of-a-gun who gets elected right before that flower blooms." Like all such long-term projects, this offspring has had many mothers and fathers. Among them are all of us who voted for the initial $90 million in bonds, and who supported efforts under the previous City Council to provide additional financing.

A Good Deal

Of course, there was some loud opposition to the library project, beginning with those who fought the 2006 bond election, continued to oppose additional city funding, and have since complained that the project is unnecessary, a "Downtown boondoggle," or simply too expensive. For the record, the citizen bond commission that established the initial $90 million bond number did so knowing that the real budget estimate was $120 million; I covered the meetings when they trimmed the library request as a means of protecting other items on the bond ballot. The city subsequently sold land and issued certificates of obligation to make up the difference, so the only cost "overruns" came to about $5 million to cover final-year contingencies. Decades from now, when our descendants are still enjoying the library, that price tag will have proved a bargain.

I'm sorry to say that some members of the current Council have contributed to the false narrative, pandering to those who believe we can sustain branch libraries without a strong central trunk, that libraries have been replaced by smartphones, or that "nobody goes Downtown, it's too crowded." It's also false that libraries, properly conceived and maintained, are now less necessary or even less in demand – the opposite is true.

Vote for the Future

Readers needn't trust me. If you're in doubt, just spend an afternoon exploring the new facility – it explains and justifies itself. But I'm rearguing this history with a slightly tangential motive: in defense of the current bond election, both of the Travis County roads and parks bonds, and the much larger Austin ISD bond (Nov. 7, currently early voting). As of Tuesday, a little over 3% of eligible voters had made it to the polls – this in a city that never stops bragging about its engaged citizenry.

I suspect that the modest county bond package will pass easily, but in light of recent public bond resistance, especially to large endeavors – light rail, and the civil courthouse project – the school bonds could be on shakier ground. Some bond opponents, rather than honestly criticize the actual merits of the spending, have instead launched false charges of corruption or dishonesty, to the point of filing criminal complaints against the school district. That should suggest something about their motivations.

You can read the Chronicle endorsement online. I would add that our public education system, long a grand achievement of the whole community (and foundational in the Texas Constitution), remains under siege by the state. The Legislature and state officials have for decades undermined school funding, and attempted to erode our common obligation to support public schools. That irresponsibility has placed a disproportionate burden on local communities, and in that regard, prosperous Austin is hardly in the worst predicament.

We must defend and support our public schools, and our schoolchildren. Like our libraries, our schools are indispensable centers of learning, research, and reflection, and they sustain a common culture, worthy of transmission to the next generation. May the remaining 97% of you take the small time and trouble to do your part.

“Point Austin” is off next week.

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library, November 2017 election, central library, AISD bond

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