Just as Program Was Winning Honors, Its Funds Are Being Cut a Third : Leader of Literacy Program to Resign

Times Staff Writer

Barbara Bush, wife of Vice President George Bush, visited here recently to honor what many people say is the most successful literacy program in the state.

A long-time literacy advocate, Bush lauded Pasadena Reads, an experimental literacy program launched early last year with federal and state funds that aimed to be volunteer-run and community-funded within three years.

But Bush had a surprise coming to her--a letter from Reads coordinator Theresa Rayburn warning that a 33% reduction in funding for next year was threatening the success of the very program Bush was honoring. To maintain the program's current rate of spending, Rayburn said, Pasadena Reads would need $90,000 from the state for the next fiscal year. The state, however, has offered a maximum of only $46,500.

200 Adults Tutored

The next day, Rayburn resigned from her position effective June 1, arguing that the program she had designed and which top state library officials have termed "exemplary" was destined to fail without long-term state and federal funding. With a total budget of $105,500 for the program's first 18 months, Rayburn said she organized a literacy program that at its peak tutored about 200 adults per week, about 80% of them black, Latino and Asian.

Pasadena Reads was one of 26 literacy programs begun in January, 1984. Pasadena Reads received a one-time federal grant of $67,000, which was supplemented nine months later with $38,500 from the state. The state's initial funding expires in June; starting in July, the state will change its literacy program allocations to a fiscal-year basis.

The reactions to Rayburn's resignation have been mixed. Susan Porter Rose, Barbara Bush's chief of staff, said from Washington that Bush could not respond to Rayburn's letter other than to say that it did raise some "serious questions," to which Bush promised to respond in a letter to Rayburn.

Edward Szynaka, director of the Pasadena Public Library, which oversees Pasadena Reads, said that Rayburn's letter to Bush was "highly inappropriate."

Szynaka said the overall one-third cut in funding was anticipated when the program was founded and will not lessen the library's commitment to the program.

Duties to Be Shifted

Sally Martin, the library's principal social services librarian and Rayburn's immediate supervisor, said she had hoped Rayburn would stay on the job until September, when the coordinating duties were scheduled to be assigned to a full-time library staff member.

Despite Rayburn's resignation, the loss of a consulting position and cutbacks in staff hours in next year's budget, Szynaka said Pasadena Reads will continue to provide tutoring services by having library staff members administer the largely volunteer program.

Al Bennett, the state library's literacy specialist, said that although Rayburn's letter to Bush and her resignation represent an "unfortunate situation," he understands her frustrations with funding.

Rayburn said she quit because the program had become unworkable without adequate financial support. She said she could have stayed on as the coordinator at a salary less than her $30,000 a year, but claimed that other parts of the program would have suffered.

Rayburn is not alone in her concern about funding for the literacy program. Her warning of a faltering program was echoed in the letters of other literacy coordinators--many are expecting budget reductions as severe as that affecting Pasadena Reads--sent to the California Library Services Board which administers the program's budget.

As a result of the appeals, the state board moved last week to re-examine funding schedules for its programs, which now total 49, said Cameron Robertson, the state library's literacy campaign program manager.

"Maybe the expectations to generate local support were unrealistic," Robertson said. "Maybe it will require a more intensive effort on our part to generate (private) funds and community support."

Robertson said he will submit his findings to the board in August. The board's action, however, "does not hold out any relief to projects having difficulties (now), but it does hold out some hope for the future," he said.

But, he added, "there's no backing off on the part of the board's commitment" to making the statewide program work.

"We are learning as we go," said state Librarian Gary Strong, the architect of the nation's first statewide and state-funded literacy campaign. Strong, who called Pasadena Reads "exemplary" for the teaching materials developed by Rayburn for Pasadena's minority residents, said the funding problems are part of an evolving program aimed at eradicating adult illiteracy, which he said handicaps about 6 million Californians.

Three-Year Reduction

He said the purpose of state funding was to serve as seed money that would be reduced over a three-year period. As city governments, county libraries and community organizations assume the full-time operation and funding of their local literacy programs, he said state money would be freed to start new programs. Based on this system, he said, the campaign expects to place a literacy program in each of the state's 169 public libraries within eight to 10 years.

What must be remembered, Strong said, is that the nearly 2-year-old California Literacy Campaign already has exceeded initial expectations. The program will expand even faster than planned because of a $800,000 budget increase targeted for new programs over last year's funding of $2.63 million.

Still, he said, "We are merely brushing the surface." Only 15 of Los Angeles County's 90 libraries have literacy programs. "We need to encourage more city and community participation."

While the numbers of literacy programs statewide will continue to grow, some problems at the local level appear to be slowing individual programs.

One complaint Rayburn shared with the present and former literacy coordinators at the City of Commerce Public Library, Monterey Park's Bruggemeyer Memorial Library and the Los Angeles Public Library, which operates 10 literacy programs, was that cities are not allocating money to the programs as state library officials had hoped. The major local exceptions are the 15 literacy programs run by the Los Angeles County Public Library, which will fund its programs with or without state assistance.

Proposal Not Sent

In Pasadena, city records show that the library prepared a funding proposal in January that would have paid a coordinator's salary until next year. But Szynaka said the proposal for $43,200 in salary and benefits was not forwarded to the Board of City Directors because of a projected drop in city revenues. Since Proposition 13, he said, city allocations to the library have been consistently reduced.

Rayburn said she tried fund-raising for the program, but was instructed by Martin, her supervisor, to stop because it conflicted with the library's own $3.8 million restoration project.

Szynaka would not comment on this issue, but Martin said, "You can't have the same agency seeking money from foundations for two different projects. The choice was not that restoration was more important. You can't pay for restoration any other way, where literacy can be absorbed into the library's budget."

Strong said he "may not agree with the Pasadena context" on the fund-raising issue, which he supports as an important ingredient of local support, but defended the library's authority to make such a request.

"There's no right answer here," Strong said. "I just hope that people at the local level don't lose sight of the objectives, and that's to teach people to read."

'Change in Emphasis'

Szynaka, who said his disagreements with Rayburn represent "an honest difference of opinion," said that the library's commitment to Pasadena Reads is stronger than ever.

"Terry's (Theresa's) disappointment is that she views what has happened as a change in emphasis," Szynaka said. "But it is not. It's merely a recognition of the magnitude of the problem. There is no way for the library to meet all of the (community's) needs."

Rayburn, 30, who has a secondary teaching credential from California State University, Los Angeles, and taught high school in East Los Angeles, said she feels good about the program she organized and her attempts to point out what she claims are the problems at Pasadena Reads.

Rayburn, who worked with the Sandinista government's literacy campaign on Nicaragua's eastern coast in 1980, said she had no choice but to act on her conviction that literacy is more than teaching people to read and write, but an inherently political process through which people become empowered to change the conditions that prevented them from learning in the first place.

"It's only by taking ethical stands like this that the people will be encouraged to participate and have faith in us as community organizers and teachers," she said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°