Placing a law enforcement officer full-time on each of the 15 Bulloch County Schools campuses would cost roughly $1 million a year, Superintendent Charles Wilson told the Board of Education at their most recent meeting.
That would mean a hike of about $860,000 from what the school system spent to have just four school resource officers, who served at six of the schools, last year. It would require increasing the number of SROs provided by the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office from three to 10 and the number supplied by the Statesboro Police Department from one to five.
That is not going to happen for the 2018-19 school year, with neither the funding nor the officers available at this point, Wilson said. What may happen instead is that one additional Bulloch sheriff’s deputy will be assigned as an SRO for both Portal Middle High School and Portal Elementary School and one additional Statesboro Police officer will be assigned as a second resource officer at Statesboro High.
“Going into this next year, if we add an SRO at Statesboro High School, at the tune of about $50,000, and if we added another SRO at Portal Middle and High, we’d be looking at about $340,000. … So that’s about a $200,000 jump from what we were doing last year,” Wilson said.
School resource officers are assigned to the schools for the 180 class days, but are employed by their agencies for other duties the rest of the year.
Last school year the school system spent about $140,000 for the four SROs. But this included just $20,000 to $30,000 for each of the three Sheriff’s Office deputies, in contrast to about $50,000 for the Statesboro Police Department officer, Wilson said.
Wilson’s statement and the related discussion were heard at the June 14 BOE meeting. At their previous regular meeting, board members voted 8-0 to obtain cost estimates for assigning one officer to each of the schools and also discussed adding a second officer at Statesboro High because of its size.
A larger share
Officials of both the city and county recently estimated the expense of employing, training and equipping an officer for the full year at about $95,000, Wilson acknowledged. County Manager Tom Couch had said that the school system needs to pay about $50,000 per officer, and not a share of the salary alone, and Wilson said he understood Couch’s position.
“If you really push that out into what that’s going to look like if we get an SRO into every school, we’re looking at roughly a million dollars a year, which is basically an $860,000 increase over what we’re doing now,” Wilson said. “There’s no way to make that happen right now because there are no officers to push into these schools.”
But in the context of the school system’s $95-million general fund budget, an added $200,000 is not enough to require a budget amendment, Wilson said. Taken literally, his overall estimate of $340,000 for what will now be six resource officers would make the school system’s share almost $57,000 each, and Wilson mentioned a $50,000 to $60,000 range.
The added deputy in Portal would mean that all of the middle and high schools have SROs, although some will be sharing officers.
The push for more SROs grew out of a series of public input meetings for improving safety Wilson held after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. With 17 killed, it was the deadliest in a national plague of school shootings last school year.
In April, District 3 board member Dr. Stuart Tedders suggested five steps to bolster school safety. These included hiring a school safety coordinator, creating a safety advisory committee and compiling separate inventories of school employees and community members willing to volunteer in schools protection efforts. His fifth suggestion, that the board consider a 1-mill property tax increase dedicated to school safety, was not taken up during the budget process. Tedders had mentioned adding more SROs as one possibility, but said he insisted on services directed at students’ mental and emotional health as a condition for any added tax.
After his repeated calls for action, Tedders heard praise for his passionate stance but also mixed feelings about adding resource officers, he said at the recent meeting.
“One of these concerns is the perceived militarization of our schools. …,” Tedders said. “Another concern … was unequal treatment and singling out of children, particularly children of color.”
This concern stems from a perception that resource officers are often used to police student behaviors, Tedders said. He added that he didn’t know if this is true, but understands these concerns and thinks the school system should be sensitive to them.
Three citizens also commented on the school safety ideas during the June 14 public input time.
Referring to Tedders, Bulloch County NAACP Branch President Pearl Brown, said it was “refreshing to see” a board member “passionate about our students and our faculties at our schools” who “wants our schools to be secure places for learning.”
In regard to SROs, Brown said, “I do hope that we would take a particular look, though, at Nevils Elementary School and Stilson Elementary School because those are two of the schools that are farthest out in the county and have absolutely no police presence.”
Adrianne McCollar said she sees value in resource officers but also sees a need for more support for students’ mental and emotional wellbeing.
“I think that we may have three social workers in the schools for more than 10,000 students … and I know that a lot of our counselors are oftentimes focused on helping students get from one grade to the next and on testing and classes. …,” McCollar said. “I really don’t know that we have that effort to really support mental health in the schools.”
A national organization characterizes SROs as “a community policing effort” meant to build positive relationships between students and police officers and “not to be put in schools to solve any particular issue,” McCollar also said.
Wilson echoed this, saying that resource officers are “not intended to be an imposing force” but “partners, there to build relationships, and to be able to respond and react.”
County resident Jimmy Hayes criticized the proposed hiring of a school safety coordinator as an unnecessary expense.
“If we’ve got deputies in the schools, then the sheriff is involved, and we’ve got principals at every school,” Hayes said. “Then between the sheriff and the principal they should be able to, you know, tell that deputy what he needs to be doing.”
Contracting a specialized firm to do a safety needs assessment was District 4 board member Steve Hein’s suggestion, and continued to be discussed.
Ad hoc committee
However, Wilson and Tedders described the proposed coordinator as someone who could help evaluate school safety needs and lead in planning. A community advisory committee will be essential, Wilson said.
“I do think, though, to go where it needs to go, we need to hire someone, a school safety director, someone that can quarterback these issues, and address, coordinate internally, all of the things that have to happen,” Wilson said.
He asked Tedders and board Chairman Mike Sparks to work with him as “an ad hoc board committee” for planning toward the community committee and considering further steps.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.