Thursday, June 30, 2022

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School board and county commissioners chairmen look to create joint school safety task force

At special meeting between school board and county commissioners, everyone wants greater school security, especially through additional school resource officers (SROs), but some disagree over who should pay for it?

Alamance County’s commissioners and Alamance-Burlington school board members held a special meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to fund 14 additional school resource officers that the school board had included in its original county budget request but later trimmed to four in order to fund other spending priorities that had been identified earlier this spring (see related story).

BOARD CHAIRMEN. County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr. and school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves have agreed on the need for a joint school safety task force.

The two boards weren’t able to agree on much, although all of the commissioners and school board members emphasized that school safety is a priority, particularly in the wake of the May 24 school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

“It [Uvalde] was just horrific really and [there are] way too many incidents of that type.” – County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr.

“It was just horrific really and [there are] way too many incidents of that type,” commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr. said Tuesday afternoon. The terrible horrific thing is one is too many. [School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves] and I got on the phone the next morning and talked about how we – particularly law enforcement – can prevent this from happening particularly in Alamance County. School security is major [priority].”

Paisley indicated that he and Ellington-Graves are looking into establishing a joint school safety task force, which would include each of the municipal police chiefs and sheriff Terry Johnson, to come up with ways to enhance school safety.  Each of the police chiefs, as well as Johnson and several of his lieutenants, attended the special meeting with the commissioners and school board members Tuesday afternoon.

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The commissioners’ chairman went on to say, “Today is not about pointing fingers and asking specifically for more money; it’s to talk about…what can we, as an entire group, do to improve the situation.”

For her part, Ellington-Graves told the commissioners that the school board has tentatively agreed to defer several other spending priorities that had been included in their “expansion” funding request – for example, $250,000 for athletic trainers – but couldn’t eliminate funds to increase the teacher supplement, which she noted has already been reduced from a 1 percent increase to .5 percent to come up with $522,000 to fund full-time SROs at 14 schools that currently have part-time officers.

“As a board,” said school board vice chairman Patsy Simpson, “we have always addressed school safety to the extent we can; I don’t think talking about school resource officers is the only thing we need to talk about.  I don’t want this to be a publicity stunt, to be just a meeting to say that we’ve done something.”

“It is not just about school resource officers. We’ve got doors we’ve got windows that do not lock and do not latch; we’ve got six operational doors at Williams [High School] that do not lock – we’ve got 30 at that school. We have got to shore up our school facilities.  Is it cameras? Is it doors that are operational?  Those are things we need to address.” – School board member Allison Gant

“It is not just about school resource officers,” said school board member Allison Gant.  “We’ve got doors we’ve got windows that do not lock and do not latch; we’ve got six operational doors at Williams [High School] that do not lock – we’ve got 30 at that school. We have got to shore up our school facilities.  Is it cameras? Is it doors that are operational?  Those are things we need to address.”

In a separate interview, sheriff Terry Johnson said that when his officers performed a review of safety at the schools his officers patrol, at least one high school principal objected to the recommendation to ensure that outside doors be locked.

ABSS assistant superintendent Dr. Todd Thorpe told the two boards that “these are exterior doors,” and while some of the non-operational locks at Williams have been replaced, some doors will have to be replaced entirely.  He added that he expects to have an analysis ready by early fall which will detail how many doors aren’t working properly – throughout the school system’s facilities – as well as what other security gaps might exist.

Paisley pointed out that he hopes some sort of meaningful action will come out of any task force or committee that’s established to examine school safety.

“Mr. Chairman,” commissioner Craig Turner said, “you mention the word ‘action.’ There are two actions I think should come out of this meeting.  Short term: we’re here at a moment, an inflection moment.  We had a school shooting; every member on the board of commissioners said we need to have SROs in every school.  That is our short term action – if there’s no action, then shame on us.”

Simpson, the school board’s vice chairman, said ABSS receives a limited amount of state funding for SROs “and that is for SROs in the high schools.” She urged both boards to advocate to get that funding structure changed at the state level.

“I think you’re probably right – our house members and our senator need to be part of this discussion,” Paisley responded.

“We just want to go through all of the options,” Simpson explained, adding that earlier in the day, the school board “sat down and looked at our numbers and various scenarios to try and address our safety.  How can you as the county assist us in that effort?”

School board member Tony Rose elaborated, “We spoke for the better part of an hour about that topic just today.  We had a budget request, and you funded some of those items and some you didn’t.  In the list that you did fund was four SROs.  That list came to you prior to the shooting…We want funding for schools that do not have SROs right now.  The difference was $522,000, and we spent time talking about the amount that you guys philosophically gave us.  If we’re going to have additional SROs in every school we’re going to need that additional funding.”

The commissioners haven’t yet voted to adopt a county budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year that begins July 1, but they’re currently scheduled to discuss and vote on a budget ordinance at their upcoming meeting Monday night.

ABSS chief budget officer Jeremy Teetor told the commissioners Tuesday afternoon, “At this point, every high school and middle school has a full-time SRO; every school in the sheriff’s jurisdiction has a full-time SRO.”  In all, Teetor said that ABSS has a total of 23 officers, including several SRO supervisors and an “extra floater” for the middle and high schools in Burlington.

“The $70,000 we put toward a position covers a portion of that position,” said Ellington-Graves.  “We are basically supplementing that position but not covering it entirely.”

Mebane police chief Terrence Caldwell pointed out for the commissioners and school board members that Mebane is in a “unique position” because Mebane’s city council has always funded all of the costs to have SROs in those schools within its municipal jurisdiction.

Burlington police chief Brian Long estimated that it would cost a little over $600,000 in “hard costs” such as equipment and training to hire seven new SROs for schools within his jurisdiction. “We all share that desire to keep our kids safe; there are multiple ways to do that; we talked about hardening schools,” said Long.

“I don’t really care what it takes to get SROs at every school because i doubt anybody in this room wants to give a press conference if we have a school in Alamance that’s the next Uvalde.” – County commissioner Pam Thompson

“I don’t really care what it takes to get SROs at every school because I doubt anybody in this room wants to give a press conference if we have a school in Alamance that’s the next Uvalde,” said county commissioner Pam Thompson, who served eight years on the school board prior to her election as a commissioner in 2020.

“If it was ever at any of these way-out schools, the response time would really work against us.  Uvalde is really the most recent and the littlest children; every life that is taken is absolutely priceless.  This is real, hardcore life; we have to be the leaders and step up and do whatever we have to do because you’re going to have another one…We’ve just got to grow up and do the right thing here.”

Simpson urged the two boards to “leave the politics at home.”

 

School board member Simpson, county commissioner Lashley square off over who should pay for SROs

“We can either promise the people of Alamance County a 1-cent or 2-cent tax break, or we can do this,” the school board’s vice chairman said.  “You keep my little $20 a year that you save on taxes and do this. All of us have got reserve accounts. We’ve got Covid money; we’ve got fund balance.  I want to know how can we beef up our schools.  Forget this politics and do what’s right for our children.  We’re not going to be sitting here talking about $500,000 because my child is worth way more than $500,000.”

“Ms. Simpson, you’re half-right and you’re half-wrong,” commissioner Bill Lashley countered.  “I came here today to find out what you are willing to do.”  He said he sat down with the ABSS finance officer, Teetor, in an effort to find out how things are funded within the school system’s budget.  “I can probably figure out right now how to find the money,” Lashley said.

“You’re the primary funding source, and this is your responsibility,” Simpson shot back.

School board vice-chairman Patsy Simpson (center) discussing need for commissioners to increase funding to provide for school resource officers. Listening are county commissioners Pam Thompson (left) and Craig Turner (right).

“As a board, we have always addressed school safety to the extent we can; I don’t think talking about school resource officers is the only thing we need to talk about.  I don’t want this to be a publicity stunt, to be just a meeting to say that we’ve done something. . .  I’m saying ‘everybody open your wallets’ if you really want to fund this thing.” – School board vice chairman Patsy Simpson

 

“There is plenty of money in your [ABSS]  coffers to take care of this [the additional SROs].” – County commissioner Bill Lashley

“You have not [given] me one number, what the schools are willing to do for SROs,” Lashley said.  “I’m asking, what is the school board willing to do for SROs and safety? We haven’t even discussed your [Article] 39 and 40 buckets for your sales taxes.  Do you have any idea how much more you are above budget [for sales tax revenue] than last year? My budget is due in 16 days; you need to let me know where you are.”

“I’m saying,” Simpson responded, “‘everybody open your wallets’ if you really want to fund this thing.”

“There is plenty of money in your coffers to take care of this,” Lashley responded, adding, “I can’t get to point B without asking you where point A starts.  Once you tell me that number, we can discuss a lot of things.  Just give me a number; that’s all I’m asking for.  I thought we held this meeting to discuss funds.”

Rose explained that the board was willing to put the $250,000 line item, which had been included in the board’s original budget request for hiring six contract athletic trainers, toward hiring more SROs.  “The issue is, we need funding for 14,” Rose said.  “What’s happened here is we’ve had a series of school shootings – one most recently – and the nation is saying, ‘now.’”

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