ABSS administration has decided to seek $260,000 for four more SROs, rather than $1.1 million for 17 new positions, as originally outlined to school board
QUESTION: What have the school resource officers been doing since Alamance-Burlington schools system closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020?
ANSWER: Granted, ABSS students have been receiving their instruction remotely (i.e., online) since March of last year, when Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order directing the state’s 115 public school systems to close, in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
But the school shutdown hasn’t left the 22 SROs who serve ABSS schools idle, based on an overview of that Brandon Mays, who oversees SROs for the Alamance County sheriff’s department, provided for school board members during their latest work session.
The sheriff’s department and the county’s five municipal police departments – Burlington, Mebane, Graham, Elon, and Haw River, as well as the campus safety departments at Alamance Community College and Elon University – each supply SROs for schools that are located within their jurisdiction, based on annual contracts that each agency has with ABSS, for a total cost of approximately $1.4 million annually. ABSS finance officer Jeremy Teetor confirmed for The Alamance News that the school system has continued to honor its financial obligations under the contracts, to include paying hourly rates for those schools that have part-time SROs.
The primary focus of the SRO program is building positive relationships with students from an early age, through non-confrontational interactions, as part of a “community policing” approach to law enforcement that’s aimed at deterring criminal behavior later in life, Mays explained.
Their role has evolved since ABSS closed last spring, Mays said. The SROs that the sheriff’s department provides for 12 schools (Sylvan, Jordan, Alexander Wilson, E.M. Holt, A.O., and Pleasant Grove Elementary; Southern, Western, and Woodlawn Middle; and Eastern, Southern, and Western High schools) have conducted more than 200 home visits – which he described as being similar to “wellness checks” that law enforcement provide for elderly residents – during the current 2020-21 school year, Mays explained. The sheriff’s SROs have contacted a total of 787 students and/or parents in the eastern, southern, and western zone this year, based on a breakdown that the finance officer provided to the newspaper.
The Burlington police department’s SROs “have continued patrols of ABSS properties and [have] engaged and been responsive to school staff, and most importantly, maintained relationships with students in the community as they were displaced from the normal school room setting,” assistant Burlington police chief Brian Long said. “The department was able to maintain and continue teaching its [Drug Awareness and Resistance Education] program in a virtual environment and graduated over 500 fifth-grade students from the program in December of 2020. The Burlington police department is set to return to school immediately upon notification and to continue implanting proven and new programs to positively impact ABSS students.”
The school system’s administration had originally recommended asking Alamance County’s commissioners for $1.1 million that would be used to hire 17 additional full-time SROs, as part of an overall proposed county budget request for the 2021-22 fiscal year that totals approximately $50 million.
During an initial discussion about the proposed county budget for ABSS, Teetor said the school system could apply for a state grant, potentially offsetting about half of the total $1.1 million cost for 17 SROs.
Initial proposal for $1.1M for 17 SROs scaled back to $260K for four SROs
However, the recommendation had been scaled back, to $260,000 in county funding that would be used to hire four additional full-time SROs – rather than the $1.1 million to hire 17 full-time SROs originally sought – school board members were told earlier this month. (The bottom line for the total county budget request remains unchanged, at approximately $50 million.)
“It was largely a matter of feasibility where cost and ability to recruit are concerned,” Teetor explained in response to an Alamance News inquiry about why the recommendation to hire 17 additional SROs has been scaled back to four. “The addition of four would also complete our effort for our most rural elementary schools to have a full-time officer.”
For the 2019-20 fiscal year, school board members agreed to use $80,000 in existing funds within the budget for 2019-20 to hire two SROs to rotate among the four most geographically-isolated elementary schools: A.O., Pleasant Grove, B. Everett Jordan, and Sylvan Elementary schools. ABSS set aside $110,000 in county funding for the current fiscal year to hire two additional full-time SROs; one would rotate between Alexander Wilson and E.M. Holt Elementary schools, while the other would provide support for the high schools in Burlington, according to the finance officer.
Five Alamance County residents had urged school board members late last month to reject the administration’s recommendation to hire 17 additional SROs during the upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year, based on written statements they submitted to be read into the record during the public comments portion of the school board’s meeting on January 25.
Their calls to reduce funding for SROs were based on what they said should receive higher priority, such as additional funding for mental health services to help students cope with social and emotional problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a general perception that that law enforcement shouldn’t be ubiquitous in schools, based on the written public comments that the five residents submitted for the earlier discussion.
School board members vote 5-2 to approve county budget request
School board members voted 5-2 this week to approve the county budget request for ABSS for the 2021-22 fiscal year. Voting to approve were: school board chairman Allison Gant; vice chairman Tony Rose; and school board members Wayne Beam; Sandy Ellington-Graves; and Donna Westbrooks. School board members Ryan Bowden and Patsy Simpson voting against.
During a brief discussion Monday night, Bowden questioned the decision to allocate $3.1 million in federal stimulus funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to create 39 new positions to provide remediation and other academic support to address what Teetor termed “learning loss” that students have experienced while receiving their instruction online since March 2020.
“Remediation is probably going to be needed once we get back to normal,” Bowden acknowledged this week, “but I don’t want to put us in a bind – and three years from now, we’re going to the county commissioners. I’m trying to think long-term versus short-term.”
Approximately $11.8 million that ABSS received through the first CARES Act stimulus package last spring must be spent this year, according to information Teetor previously presented to school board members. ABSS is estimated to receive approximately $22 million from the second round of federal stimulus funding that be spent by September 30, 2023, the finance director said last month during a joint meeting with the school board and Alamance County’s board of commissioners.
Simpson said Monday night that she would wanted more money to be set aside in the budget for hiring additional mental health workers and contracted athletic trainers at the high schools. “I want to know how many mental health people [we] have and what exactly are they doing to justify these new positions,” she told the finance director.
Teetor suggested this week that school board members could examine the possibility of limiting the length of employment for new positions funded by CARES Act money and other potential funding sources for athletic trainers during their meetings in March.
ABSS had included $300,000 in additional county funding in its budget request for the current fiscal year, in hopes of hiring one full-time athletic trainer and five contracted athletic trainers. That plan was apparently scrapped due to the statewide school closure that took effect in March 2020 and a subsequent reduction in county funding amid a projected revenue shortfall.
“If we find we need to continue those, you and your team can work on making that happen – that’s the fabulous work you do in finance that we leave up to you,” Gant said this week.
As for the athletic trainers, she said, “I do think we have to think about the health, safety, and well-being of our athletes; I would like to continue that conversation on some level. I think we all recognize that a first-responder is not an athletic trainer.”
The upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year begins July 1.