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Year in Review: Indianapolis Public Library CEO resigned amid racism scandal, funding loss

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The controversy started with a Zoom call May 24.  

During a virtual board meeting, members of the Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL) board of trustees heard from a former employee about how she was treated. Before Bree Flannelly, a Black woman, could get very far into her statement, board President Jose Salinas muted her.  

Salinas said he wanted to avoid any discussion of personnel issues in public and meant no ill will toward Flannelly. Other board members voiced their displeasure at Flannelly’s silencing and urged him to allow her to continue. Flannelly shared her story of racism, ableism and sexism. During her five years of employment, Flannelly told the board she heard Black patrons referred to as porch monkeys. 

Flannelly’s description of her experience set off a firestorm that would eventually result in the resignation of the library’s CEO, Jackie Nytes. 

Nytes, who began her tenure as CEO in 2012, repeatedly said, while the library wasn’t perfect, anti-racism efforts were in place. The efforts, she said, were “extensive, sincere and engaging people at all levels of the organization.” 

Dr. Patricia Payne, who is in her sixth year on the board of trustees, wasn’t surprised by the allegations. While she credited the library for its involvement in racial equity training, she condemned the culture at IndyPL. 

“The library is run like a plantation,” Payne told the Recorder in May. “You have the house employees, which is not the word I want to use, but they’re receiving favor and the field employees are receiving punishment.” 

As the board of trustees squabbled about who should conduct an internal climate study, the Central Indiana Community Foundation announced in August it would withhold $28 million of funding from the library until a noticeable change in the workplace culture was evident. 

Amid calls for her to step down and funding at risk, Nytes submitted her resignation to the board of trustees at a special board meeting Aug. 20. In an internal email to staff before the meeting, Nytes said she needed to resign so the library could improve. 

“The heaviness that hangs over the library these days is something that we haven’t been able to shake and as your CEO, I have to play a major role in getting us to a better place,” Nytes wrote. “If I cannot do that, then I need to allow someone else the chance to see if they can.” 

John Helling, who previously served as IndyPL’s chief public services officer for over five years, started as interim CEO on Sept. 1. In November, the board of trustees announced the local law firm Ice Miller would oversee the internal climate study for a fee of $100,000. Union members, as well as Payne and Dr. Khaula Murtadha — the latter of whom offered to conduct the study for free — objected, as the second highest bid was $27,000.  

A climate study survey was sent to IndyPL staff Dec. 9, with the results expected to be returned to the board of trustees in early 2022. The search for a permanent CEO will begin after Ice Miller presents its findings to the board. 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or by email at breannac@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper. 

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