By Gary Nelson
“It’s a big system. There are 89 schools, 56,000 students and 9,000 employees,” Gus Paidousis, Knox County Schools chief of security, told the Schools and Education Committee.
Paidousis is a retired Knoxville Police officer who has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience.
“We have an SSO in nearly every school,” he said.
The meeting was set up by county commissioners who were interested in hearing about the Knox County school safety officer program in order to determine if such a system could work in Cumberland County and possibly save money.
Currently, Cumberland County is using four sheriff’s deputies who are employed by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department through a contract with the school system. The cost was a little more than $300,000 for those four, which includes a vehicle. The four SROs split their time between eight elementary schools.
The Cumberland County Board of Education agreed to fund three officers for the first year, with Sheriff Butch Burgess providing a fourth officer from his budget.
Under the agreement, the sheriff’s department provides one regularly employed deputy to cover two elementary schools each, with one assigned to Brown and South Cumberland elementary schools, one assigned to Pine View and Crab Orchard elementary schools, one assigned to North Cumberland and Pleasant Hill elementary schools and one assigned to Stone and Homestead elementary schools. The city of Crossville provides an SRO at Stone Memorial High School and one at Cumberland County High School.
Burgess said he would like to have one at each school. However, the BOE has said it does not have the funding to continue the program next year at this rate and the funding would have to fall back on the county commission.
The current agreement, or memorandum of understanding, is also under review by county attorney Randal Boston. County commissioners did not pass the budget amendment for transfer of the funding last month because they did not know an agreement had been signed and no agreement, or meetings, had been held with the county commission. The budget amendment was tabled for review. Boston, Earl Patton, BOE attorney, the BOE and county are currently reviewing and reworking the agreement so the county does not get tied to any state maintenance of effort funding requirements in the future.
Technicalities aside, the SRO program has been a success so far, according to Cumberland County Director of Schools Donald Andrews. Burgess also told county commissioners, previously, the program has been going well. Andrews, as well as several BOE members, attended the schools and education meeting. Burgess was unable to attend.
To put four more SROs in the school system with vehicles through the sheriff’s department would cost roughly another $300,000 per year, bringing the total to roughly $600,000 to start the program with eight officers. Afterward, the vehicle costs would be significantly less; however, some county commissioners feel it could cost the county much less to run an SSO program similar to Knox County.
“I’m not against the SROs, but we don’t need to buy them all a new vehicle. If we hired our own officers for all the schools it would cost less. We’d have enough for all the schools,” 7th District Commissioner Mike Harvel has previously said.
Charles Seiber, 4th Dsitrict commissioner, agreed with Harvel and recommended the county meet with Paidousis to see how the Knox County program worked.
Paidousis said he felt it takes two things to create a successful security officer program – an active and engaged superintendent of schools and an actively engaged board of education and county commission.
He explained that in Knox County, the school system has hired its own staff of SSOs. The SSOs are employees of the school system. He said there are approximately 100 SSOs and there are also 23 Knox County Sheriff’s deputies as well as 17 Knoxville Police officers.
“There is a lot of uniform presence in the schools,” Paidousis said.
He explained the SSOs are bonded and licensed to carry a weapon to and from school and have arresting powers. They go through a six-week police training program through the Knox County Sheriff’s Department.
He explained that once the school day starts, all of the doors are locked and the only way anyone can enter a school is through the front door, which is also locked. The person must ring a bell, which is connected to the office and a security camera system and someone in the office must buzz the door to unlock it and the person enter.
Harvel asked what the advantage was of having an SSO system over having SROs through the sheriff’s department.
Paidousis said with SSOs being an employee of the school system, they can perform searches and look through records and have a much greater leeway than a deputy.
“They can perform arrests, but we turn the arrests over to the law enforcement (deputies). We can do random weapons searches,” Paidousis said.
Paidousis said the SSOs are hired in at a starting salary of $20,500 plus benefits. They drive their personal cars to and from the school they are assigned.
“We have a good relationship with the sheriff’s department,” Paidousis said.
Jan McNeil, 5th District commissioner, asked if there were grants available for funding the officers. Paidousis said he was unsure.
Larry Allen, 6th District commissioner, said, “I’d like to see an officer at every school, not just at four and split between two. I’m just trying to visualize the costs.”
Tim Clafflin, Cumberland County school safety coordinator, asked how much Knox County’s budget was.
Paidousis estimated $1.9 million, with 75 percent of that being spent on personnel, but said he wasn’t sure because he didn’t have budget figures with him.
Paidousis said all of the funding was budgeted through the school system.
He explained the people who were hired for SSOs go through an extensive background check and history.
“As far as I’m aware, none have been hired who have had a prior arrest,” Paidousis said.
County commissioners thanked Paidousis for meeting with the committee. The issue will be considered and may be brought up again in a future county commission meeting.