Opinion: Is The Jones Library Director’s Yearly Evaluation Transparent?

Atrium in the Jones Library constructed as part of a 1993 renovation. The atrium is slated to be demolished under the new expansion plan. Photo: Art Keene.

Terry S. Johnson

Amherst has three major “departments” consisting of Town Hall, the School Committee, and the Jones Library. Each has different procedures and mechanisms for evaluating their appointed/elected leaders. Residents have a right to know the process and results of evaluations in order to determine which elected officials should have the responsibility of continuing to manage the needs of our Town through the leaders they hire. 

It is clear that the Jones Library has the least transparent evaluation process. No completed evaluation forms are ever shared with the public. Only a brief (one-page) summary is provided. Therefore, the public does not know which Trustees have what concerns about the Director’s performance. This opaque process stands in stark contrast to the Town’s other major departments. 

Jones Library Director
Library Director Sharon Sharry received a positive evaluation by the Jones Library Trustees during the October 25 Jones Library Board of Trustees meeting. The short summary document was written by Trustee Chris Hoffman, Chair of the Personnel, Policy and Procedures (PPP) subcommittee that is responsible for the entire process   (p. 7). 

Hoffman wrote that Sharry met her four goals, as well as the challenges of the unexpected pandemic, saying that the Trustees “found the Director has made satisfactory to commendable progress on all these goals, as well as performing the day-to-day tasks required of her,” and later adding that “if there was a negative theme at all apparent it might be summarized by one Trustee’s comment [that] ‘Sharon’s informal style is both [a] strength and a challenge, depending on the audience.’” 

Some staff filled out optional forms. Yet there was no mention of the number of forms completed by the library staff of about 55. In the past, this number has been listed and, if memory recalls, considerably less than half of the staff fill out the form.

It was revealed that only two members of the public completed forms (electronically). In the past, this number has been higher. These public responses expressed concerns about the library facilities and the Director’s management style.

Unfortunately, this year paper forms for the public were not available at the pick-up area due to fear of security issues. There was a concern on the part of the Director that it would be difficult to assure confidentiality.

Hoffman asserted that the evaluation process follows the guidelines of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and the American Library Association, and that the process is not modeled on evaluation policies for Amherst’s Town Manager or School Superintendent. 

It sure isn’t. 

Let’s compare the transparency of the Library Director’s evaluation process with those of the other two major town departments.  

The Jones’s evaluation policy process includes procedures and a timeline.

It also has numerous evaluation forms  (pp. 7-17) which are completed by the Board of Trustees, the Town Manager, the Human Resources Director, and the library staff (optional), as well as an open-ended form for the Friends of the Jones Library System and community members. 

However, only the Chair of the PPP committee must read all the forms. He then shares them with the Director. In addition, the Library Director writes a self-evaluation which is also unavailable to the public. 

Trustees other than the PPP Chair may read all the evaluations, but they are not required to do so. In the past, Trustees have had to request to see the finished forms.  

President Austin Sarat suggested at that 9/18 PPP meeting that Hoffman create a folder of the completed forms and send them to the Trustees so that they do not have to ask. Sarat hopes that this will be done in the future years. 

Why has the library developed an evaluation policy where its own Trustees are not required to analyze all the evaluation forms? 

Town Hall
The Town of Amherst has the slogan “Open Government to the Max,” and it is evident that the Town Manager Evaluation Process by Town Council is very extensive, explicit and available to the public. This process lets residents know exactly where our elected officials stand in evaluating our Town Manager on enumerated goals with specific objectives and includes Councilor narratives. 

The completed evaluation forms are available to the public including an Annual Performance Review, and an All Individual Council Response form. Four other files of information are available at: https://www.amherstma.gov/3497/Annual-Evaluation

including the Town Manager’s Self-Evaluation.

School Department
The School Department also has an extensive evaluation process for the School Superintendent with specific ratings on goals and objectives as well as School Committee narratives although not as much information is included as in the Town Manager’s evaluation. The Superintendent’s 2020 evaluation has recently been completed (pp. 4-15).

Why Is The Library Director’s Evaluation Important?
So why is having more information about the Library Director’s performance important?  This is everyone’s library and residents have a right to know the details.

The Jones Library has been unable to maintain their downtown building adequately for years due to inadequate funds and is now asking the town to approve an audacious $35.8 million demolition/expansion project in order to solve problems caused by neglect. This cost estimate does not include $656,000 of additional sustainability features, cost overruns and, most importantly, debt service.  A state grant will provide $13.8 million.  The Town must provide the rest.  

It must be added that the Jones is already having significant budget challenges and has not been able to fill five full time positions in the last two years.

A great deal of the responsibility for planning this proposal has rested on the shoulders of the Library Director. Some residents in town are concerned that there have been many significant missteps. Here are a few.

The Director developed an oversized program plan of 110,000 sq. ft. based on an unrealistic user population of 51,000. It has now downsized to 68,000 sq. ft., which is still a very large library for a town with a “normalized” population of 18,593. (p. 32). 

The Director supported demolition of the entire 1993 addition without a formal study of rehabilitating this space, which is 17,800 sq. ft.  Replacing this 40% of the current library will cost $7,440,000. Sensible residents are having a difficult time understanding why the Library prefers to destroy a substantial addition which was recently paid for. 

Another huge misstep involved poor planning in the first set of schematic designs.  

The Library was put on the state grant waiting list, but then the schematic design was rejected because the 2,400 sq. ft. meeting room was put on the “wrong” floor. How did that happen? This has resulted in almost $100,000 of new architectural fees.

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