Yesterday, in a sunlit room on the second floor of the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, the (mostly) ladies of the Municipal Library Board did indeed vote to approve the creation of a new Dallas Public Library Foundation as a separate fund-raising entity to support Dallas's public library system. The new foundation would be responsible for securing planned and major gifts to pursue library-related projects that aren't included in the city budget, which sounds like a swell idea. So swell, in fact, that such an organization already exists.
The Friends of the Dallas Public Library, a private 501(c)(3) with a permanent endowment that recently received $500,000 from The AT&T Foundation, has raised $12 million to support the Dallas library system since its creation in 1950. That makes a new foundation seem, at best, redundant. What's more, says economist and chairman of the board of the Friends David Kusin, a "charitable foundation" is more vulnerable, tax-wise, than a 501(c)(3) like the Friends. So, why do it?
Part of the reason may have emerged in a swift second vote of approval at yesterday's meeting: The new foundation's board will be appointed by the chair of the Municipal Library Board -- and, at present, the chair is Suzanne Charriere, who was appointed by Mayor Tom Leppert in December 2007. Charriere is also the chair of the board of directors for Texas Ballet Theater and has served on the boards of a number of civic groups, among then Friends of Fair Park and the Dallas Women's Foundation.
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There's another risk, too, that has to do with the funding that actually comes to Dallas's libraries. Charriere responded to board members' questions about donor siphoning or competition between the Friends and the new DPL Foundation with an emphatic assertion that there would be "nooo crossover" and said many other large cities have both a foundation and a private nonprofit supporter (like the Friends) in peaceful coexistence.
But according to Kusin, one of the potential pitfalls of having a public-private foundation is that the city could, during, oh, say, a recession, justify budget cuts for libraries by pointing out that the libraries can get whatever they need through the foundation. Kusin adds, however, that such a pitfall "can be neutralized through the use of an independent board that is not politically appointed" -- knowledgeable professionals, in other words.
Charriere insisted that the new foundation's board would come from different sectors of the community, including the library board, community groups, and, notably, the Friends of the Dallas Public Library.
We have further questions, but Suzanne Charriere; Laurie Evans, the city's director of libraries; Christine Trent, the assistant director of libraries; and board member Sharan Goldstein have not returned calls.