LINCOLN — A small-town Nebraska librarian who won national recognition for teaching immigrants how to read has resigned in a dispute over expanding her literacy work.
Karla Shafer, who was awarded two national grants to teach literacy to immigrants and given an expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., resigned her part-time post as director of the Hooper Public Library last month after she was confronted by a City Council member.
Shafer had planned to teach English to immigrants at Nickerson, about nine miles from Hooper, as part of a second $5,000 American Dream grant from the American Library Association.
But she quit her 28-hour-a-week, $10.64-an-hour job, she said, after City Council President Gene Meyer told her she shouldn't do that because it would appear that the village of Hooper approved of the classes.
“I told him, ‘You can't stop me. It's my own vehicle, on my own day off, with my own energy,'” Shafer said. “You can't tell me what I'm doing on my time off.”
When reached, Meyer disputed that description of events.
“I just said it was pretty unusual that we paid the librarian to go to Nickerson,” Meyer said. “She could do that (literacy class) in town.
“She doesn't work there anymore, and I'm not going to go any further on it,” he added.
Hooper, a Dodge County farming community of 827, is about 15 miles north of Fremont, which has drawn national attention after voters there approved an ordinance aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from working or renting property within city limits. The ordinance is now the subject of a court challenge.
Hooper residents who were interviewed were nearly universal in their praise of the improvements Shafer made at the tiny library in her six years as the part-time director.
Shafer obtained about $30,000 in other grants to computerize the library and obtain a big-screen TV and video games for a youth center in the library.
“Karla is one of the best librarians in the country,” said Kathleen Tooker of the Omaha-based Eastern Library System. “She has a natural affinity for working with people and helping them, and that means people of all colors, even those who don't speak English.”
But even one Hooper resident who spoke highly of Shafer suggested that her work with immigrants raised some eyebrows. The person declined to be identified.
Amy Moeller, chairwoman of the Hooper Library Board, said she wasn't aware of any link between anti-immigrant sentiments and Shafer's resignation.
“She was a wonderful librarian, and a lot of people have expressed their sadness that she's gone,” said Moeller, a local teacher. “I think there were some misunderstandings that possibly snowballed.”
One misunderstanding was about the accounting of the grant money, which was deposited and spent through the nonprofit Friends of Hooper Library.
Moeller and Shafer said all library grants are funneled through the Friends group.
After she resigned, Shafer said, she went to the library to retrieve her personal items, including many decorations and displays she bought with her own funds.
She said the city clerk and police chief not only blocked her from retrieving her personal items but also began questioning her about how the grant funds were used and whether any went to her personally.
Shafer said she started crying.
“I felt like a criminal,” she said.
Police Chief Matt Schott and Hooper Mayor Larry Klahn said it ultimately was determined that nothing improper had been done with the grant money.
“We had a few questions. She answered them,” Klahn said.
He said city officials had been concerned that city property and Shafer's personal possessions were intermixed.
Shafer was allowed into the library Friday to get her personal belongings. That came after she hired a lawyer, on the advice of friends and library colleagues, to provide help in answering the allegations about the money and in getting back her things.
Shafer said she had to sell a family recreational vehicle to afford the attorney fees. She has suspended teaching English at the library to two Hispanic families that she said are legal residents.
Curriculum materials purchased with the grant funds to teach literacy at Nickerson belong to the city library, she said, so those planned classes are “down the tubes.”
“A lot of people are afraid of changes and growth. ... I don't know if that was the case with this or not,” Shafer said. “I didn't mean to do any harm. I just tried to do good.”
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