Op-ed: Making Sure Kern Comes in Last … for Illiteracy

May 17, 2016 /


South Kern Sol, Commentary, Randy Villegas

Bakersfield is number one in the nation … but it’s not for anything to be proud of.

A study by Central Connecticut State University found the city ranks first in illiteracy nationwide among cities with populations of over 250,000. This is the second year in a row that Bakersfield has earned this sad distinction.

But there is reason for optimism.

On June 7, voters in Kern County will have the chance to dramatically improve support for our public libraries, which have been chronically underfunded for years. Measure F proposes to put in place a one-eighth cent sales tax in the county with the funds generated being used to support local libraries.

Estimates say the tax will bring the budget for the Kern County Library system from its current $7.2 million to $15 million annually. Supporters of the measure note Kern’s libraries are the least funded of their size in the state.

An eighth of a cent. That’s basically one additional penny for an $8 meal, or 12 cents out of every $100 spent. It’s a price I would happily pay to make sure our community begins to come down in the rankings of illiteracy.

There are those who have raised concerns the funds will find their way into pockets instead of onto bookshelves, or that the money will end up being spent in other areas. But Measure F requires the creation of a place to house the money that is kept separate and apart from the general fund. In addition to this, an oversight committee will be established to ensure the funds are spent where they are intended.

According to Advocates for Library Enhancement (ALE), a backer of the measure, it would also require that spending records are transparent and available to the public.

Measure F will allow our libraries to extend their hours and be open at least 5 days a week. I cannot stress how disheartening it is for working parents, families and young people to see libraries that are more often closed than open, most of them limited to just two or three days of operation a week.

Importantly, Measure F would also provide funds toward increasing literacy programs for both children and adults! This would mean that parents could learn alongside their children. The initiative would also include much needed improvements and upgrades in technology and infrastructure, new resources for job seekers, and programs for youth. That means children having access to things like writing workshops, 3d printing and designing, study rooms, quiet rooms, children’s areas, and computers with the latest updates and software.

Keep in mind that for many young people in Kern, the library is one of the only places where they can gain access to technology and the internet. For some, it is one of the only places they can feel safe.

For me, the library was where I first discovered Harry Potter, the Captain Underpants Series, and how to use a computer. Since my family couldn’t afford to buy books, the library was where I discovered things I never would have otherwise.

I have canvassed several times now for Measure F, going door to door and speaking to members of the community about the importance of this measure. Now is our chance to turn the numbers around and make sure Kern comes in dead last … when it comes to illiteracy.