County commissioners and school administrators met last week to review the school system’s budget request. Among the requests was $500,000 for four new resource officers and four new counselors.
The increase would give each elementary school its own counselor rather than shared part-time counselors, seen as a proactive step to make sure students are on the right path early to avoid behavior problems down the road.
The four armed officers would be shared by elementary schools. The middle and high schools in the county already have cops.
“We believe that is a step in the right direction,” said Haywood County Superintendent Anne Garrett.
But the quandary for county leaders is how to pay for the eight new positions year after year. Budgets have been tight since the recession, and while the county’s financial outlook has improved, it has not rebounded enough to take on an additional $500,000 annual expense.
“The only way to get it is through a tax increase. We just don’t have the money,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Do they think this is important enough to raise taxes?”
Commissioners calculated that they would need to raise the property tax rate 2 cents to cover the annual cost of the officers and counselors. The current rate is 54 cents per $100 of a property’s value.
The commissioners have asked school leaders to talk with parents and residents and gauge whether they would be amenable to a tax increase if it were earmarked for the new positions.
“Let’s just see what the public thinks,” Swanger said. “It’s their kids we are talking about.”
Although the school administration has asked the commissioners for the budget increase, the Haywood County Board of Education has not formally put its weight behind the funding request. School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said they are still trying to gather input from parents.
“It is a serious thing to ask the public to ask for a tax increase,” Francis said.
But there’s a fundamental question looming over the debate. Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said although he may support funding for more officers, he wondered if it was prudent to spend money to protect against something that is “more than likely not going to happen.”
Kirkpatrick likened placing resource officers in schools to stationing an armed guard outside Walmart. Should someone stand watch over the megastore just because there is a small chance a shooting could occur there, he queried.
“You don’t know when and where that is going to happen,” Kirkpatrick said. “We are protecting against something that is very difficult to protect against.”
Some argued the presence of an officer could deter possible criminals.
“If you pull up to a bank and see a police car, you are not as likely to rob it,” Garrett said.
On the flip side, however, a mentally disturbed individual may not care either way.
“You are not going to stop a crazy person,” Kirkpatrick said.
For commissioners and school board officials, there seems no easy solution.
“I think everyone in the county wants to assure that the children are safe,” Garrett said.
But it is debatable whether additional resource officers is the answer or if the county could more wisely invest what money it does have elsewhere.
The top three causes of death among children ages five to 14 in N.C. are car crash injuries, cancer and accidents. Homicide ranks sixth — accounting for nine of the 105 deaths of children age five to 14 in 2011. Child homicides are usually at the hands of an abusive relative or caretaker, not a random shooter.
Commissioners and other county leaders voiced concerns about officers splitting their time between two schools.
Haywood has five officers now — one at both the main high schools, one at the alternative high school, one at Waynesville Middle and a shared officer between Canton and Bethel middle schools. There are none at any of the elementary schools. The four officers requested would be shared by nine elementary schools.
“That is not a good situation,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, adding that lives could be lost in the minutes it would take law enforcement to respond to a 911 call.
Part of the fear is that people can track an officer’s schedule and know when they will be at one school or another.
“Whenever we divide these (officers) and they become a half day (officer) at schools, what is going to happen the rest of the day?” said Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher. “People know when they are at a particular school.”
Christopher said concerned parents have been questioning why officers are in some schools but not others.
“’My son at Pisgah, is he that much more valuable to you than my son at Bethel?’” said Christopher, relaying a conversation with a parent.
With the county still on the fence, school administrators are hoping for state and federal funding, but the prospect is unlikely. While there have been bills introduced that would help schools fund officers, they seem unlikely of passing.
“I don’t think you can count on the state to help you,” Swanger said.
There is a federal grant program that pays a portion of the salary for a new school officer, but only for three years and competition is likely to be stiff.
Still, Haywood applied.
“We are just looking at ever opportunity that comes along,” Garrett said.
In Macon, the school system would like one additional school resource officer for its alternative middle and high school. It already has four officers: one for each middle school, and two for the 900-student-body Franklin High. Its four elementary schools nor its two K-12 schools have officers.
In Jackson, commissioners will likely consider one additional officer instead of the four being requested (see related story). In Swain County, the board of commissioners did not think twice before adding three new officers in January.
The Haywood County Board of Commissioners will meet with school leaders and law enforcement at 6 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the Education Center in Clyde. They will discuss school safety and school resource officers.