By Heather Mullinix
Members of the Cumberland County Board of Education questioned how the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department would use school funds for the School Resource Officer program if the program were only to be in place for one year.
"The sheriff is taking the brunt of this," said Josh Stone, 4th District representative. "I'm happy with the feedback we've gotten since the SROs have been in place, but if funding doesn't change hands, I wouldn't blame him if he does something different."
The BOE and Sheriff Butch Burgess agreed to split the first-year costs of the SRO program, placing four officers in the eight elementary schools at a cost of about $315,000. The school system included a one-time budget allotment of $235,000 to fund three officers and vehicles the first year, with Burgess supplying one officer and equipment from his budget.
The Cumberland County Commission has not yet approved placing those funds in sheriff's budget. The sheriff has not had funds available to replace the four officers now assigned to elementary schools throughout the county, nor have equipment or vehicles been purchased.
Recently, the county's schools and education committee heard from Gus Paidousis, the Knox County Schools chief of security, regarding that system's school safety officers. These individuals are hired by the school system, with a starting salary of around $20,500. They are bonded and licensed to carry a weapon to and from school and have arresting powers. They do not have vehicles, as they drive their own cars to work and, if they do arrest someone, local law enforcement is called. As employees of the school system, they have more authority to perform searches and look through school records.
But Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, questioned the liability of having such officers armed on Cumberland County school campuses and the possible increase in liability insurance costs that could accompany such a move.
"What will the true savings be?" he asked.
David Bowman, 7th District representative and also a deputy with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, said the sheriff would have to grant SSOs arrest powers.
Stone said he felt county commissioners were not in support of continuing the SRO program past this year and preferring the school system institute a SSO program.
"We approved buying equipment and cars," Stone said. "I don't want to buy the cars if this is not what we do in the long run."
Bowman said, "A lot of folks were pledging support hinging on the board coming up with this money. Honestly, I believe they didn't think we'd come up with the money. Now that it's real, they don't want it to continue. That's my opinion on this."
Janeway questioned how the funding was being withheld, as the county is not permitted to line-item veto the school system budget. BOE Attorney Earl Patton explained the county wanted an interlocal agreement that would prevent the one-time funding from the school system being added to the required maintenance of effort funding for the sheriff's department.
Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, said, "The problem is on the other side of the fence, but we're caught between a rock and a hard place."
Jim Blalock, 8th District representative, said, "The only way they can do it is because this board don't have the guts to stand up to them. The only thing they can do is vote yes or no for a budget. They can't change the budget."
Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, said, "I respectfully disagree. I remember school not starting on time when the board stood up. I don't think it's a matter of not standing up."
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative said, "What you find is that, when you stand up and arch your back, you say yes to one approach and no to other approaches. This board has an ongoing function of deciding when to cooperate and when to 'show guts.'"
Schlafer reminded board members they reviewed a list of possible cuts of $2 million during its recent retreat.
"We need help. We need funding," Schlafer said. "It's crazy for us to take the mentality of cutting that...What needs to be looked at is we are dead last for providing for education for our children in this state. Dead last. And we wear it like a badge of courage."
Tollett asked Bowman, Stone and Gordon Davis, 5th District representative, to continue investigating the SSO program. Andrews is to provide more information on the cost of the program, potential liability, and funding sources.
Stone said, "I'm proud of what we've done. I don't want to see it go away."