Libraries or Prisons? Why New Orleans Needs a Better Question

New Orleans Parish voters can approve a new property tax that amounts to a finger in the dike of our struggling library system, on May 2. Voters can also on that day approve a tax that continues to feed the beast of the prison industrial complex (which by the way hasn’t made us safer).

The city’s Bureau of Governmental Research would advise you to put the brakes on funding for the libraries. Here’s their reasoning: NOLA’s proposed $2.5 million property tax isn’t enough sustain the library system or build a world-class system. Raising taxes for libraries limits the city’s ability to raise money for other needs including crowded, violent prisons. Library leaders don’t even have a real plan. As for New Orleans jails, taxpayers wouldn’t feel the new tax proposed for prisons, as it would replace decreases in what the city already collects for the prison. Someone has to pay for the jail reforms mandated by a federal consent decree. Therefore, vote to improve inhumane conditions in prison at the expense of preventing people from going into them. Libraries can wait until their leadership can get a strategic plan together.

What we really need to ask is: What kind of institutions do New Orleans taxpayers want to build?

If New Orleans residents really want a more educated city, then our tax revenues should help construct institutions that reflect that aim.

Related: Who is the biggest victim of America’s prison boom?

Yes, we need to increase revenues to maintain and improve upon our struggling library system. The rebuilt system has been drawing from its reserves to cover annual deficits of more than $2 million. Officials expect to deplete the reserves in 2016.

And yes, we need to fund prisons to change the inhumane conditions in the Orleans Parish Prisons. New Orleans holds the highest percentage of incarcerated people in the world. The need is both moral and legal in that the prisons must reform according to a 2013 federal consent decree. Those reforms will cost between an estimated $10-$22 million a year.

To pit libraries against prisons would seemingly be too easy. However, New Orleans has a history of rationalizing the urgency of prisons and justifying how libraries and other educational institutions can be placed on the back burner.

Just last December activists sought to reject a preservation program for educational facilities over a conflict on whether the state, or the local, elected board should control schools – not on need the for facility preservation. Now libraries should wait until leaders present a plan not yet hatched.

I guess libraries should wait just like the prison had to wait.

Related: Three lessons mining data from children’s reading habits

BGR’s report brilliantly lays out the competing infrastructure problems that need funding. It states the larger need for a “strategic approach to public spending, based on a comprehensive assessment and prioritization.” However, BGR insidiously established its own rationale to prioritize prison reform. The federal mandate and the oversight that comes with it gave prison reform thumbs up.

But the report all but said library leaders need to come back to BGR’s table with a plan it can agree to.

The BGR report points out that Orleans Parish receives significantly less in property taxes ($8.7 million) compared with East Baton Rouge libraries ($37 million) and our neighbors’ Jefferson parish libraries ($20.2 million).

Orleans Parish prisons got to the brink of a consent decree because we waited until we were forced to fund them. Yes Orleans prisons needed budgetary oversight and accountability, but the consent decree is forcing the sheriff to update their facilities and practices to 21st century standards. To lay all the burdens on the governance structure is simply wrongheaded.

In addition, we shouldn’t put library leaders in time-out until they allegedly get their acts together.

BGR states, “The Library has not presented voters with a plan for how it will remain relevant and effective in the 21st century. Instead, it intends to create such a plan once its funding improves.”

I agree we should hold library leaders accountable for taxpayers’ dollars. However, we do patrons and citizens a disservice when we discourage increases in revenue that libraries really need.

An aside – maybe New Orleans taxpayers should vote for new taxes to support libraries, if the sheriff places some in the Orleans Parish Prison.

And another aside – I have written about how I educated myself in the public library when local elementary schools failed me. I consulted with the New Orleans libraries in the past. I have also written about how my father was murdered in prison. These are not issues that I treat flippantly.

Related: How to keep kids with special needs out of prison and in middle school

What is clear is that New Orleans needs much more revenue. What’s not clear is the plan and process to fix our terrible roads, remedy the Firefighter Pension Fund troubles, update drainage and water distributions systems and maintain our library system. Voting for individual tax needs has become the adult equivalent to the high school superlatives. But in the public policy superlatives, jails can’t be most likely to succeed. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

I would say, vote “yes” for the library funding. And unfortunately, we have to vote “yes” for prisons.

Still the question remains: what kind of institutions do New Orleans taxpayers want to build?

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).