In the wake of last week’s school shooting in Texas, and on the eve of five of the nine Muscogee County School Board seats being up for election, the board took one-third of its three-hour meeting Monday night to debate how many full-time police officer positions to create in the district.
In a 7-2 vote, the board upgraded superintendent David Lewis’ recommendation that establishes a police agency in the Muscogee County School District.
Lewis had recommended adding one full-time armed officer at each high school. The board’s majority expanded that service to the middle schools.
Voting for the more extensive and expensive option were board chairwoman and at-large representative Kia Chambers, board vice chairman and District 6 representative Mark Cantrell (who made the prevailing motion), John Thomas of District 2, Vanessa Jackson of District 3, Laurie McRae of District 5, Cathy Williams of District 7 and Frank Myers of District 8.
Voting against that option were Pat Hugley Green of District 1 and Naomi Buckner of District 4.
Last month, with the ramifications of the February school shooting in Florida still prominently in the news, MCSD security director Scott Thomann presented the board four options for the district’s 57 school buildings:
▪ Plan A: current staffing, with 17 part-time officers, costing $2,133,871
▪ Plan B: 22 part-time officers, costing an estimated $2,409,993.
▪ Plan C: the option that Lewis recommended, with 10 full-time officers, seven part-time officers, plus three additional positions, costing an estimated $2,935,591.
▪ Plan D: the option that the board’s majority approved, with 21 full-time officers, one part-time officer, plus five additional positions, costing an estimated $3,826,337.
The recommended option would have added an estimated $801,720, including $351,720 in start-up costs, to the $2,133,871 MCSD currently allots for security, according to the figures Thomann presented the board last month. The approved option will add $1,692,467, including $892,467 in start-up costs.
Lewis told the board last month that his recommended security upgrade, Option C, already is part of the proposed fiscal year 2019 budget, which will be up for approval in June, and he wouldn’t ask the board to vote on it separately. Since then, however, board members expressed enough concern to convince him to make it a separate action item on Monday night’s agenda.
“In light of the changing environment in our schools,” Williams said, the district should spend “as much as we can afford to secure our students.” But she asked Lewis whether the more expensive Option D would put the proposed 2 percent raise for teachers at risk.
Because the district hasn’t received final revenue figures from the state or the local tax digest, Lewis said, he can’t definitely answer yet, but he emphasized that the raise “is one of our primary commitments.”
Noting that Sante Fe High School had two officers on site before the shooting and the suspect hid his weapon under a coat, Williams asked whether MCSD is considering installing metal detectors at schools.
Lewis didn’t answer directly, but he said the Georgia Legislature has allocated $16 million for “hardening school security” among the state’s public schools, and “we’re waiting to get more direction on that.” Still, MCSD has “some money put away” from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for more security upgrades, he said, and district officials are working with local law enforcement agencies to establish threat assessment teams at each school.
Although it’s important to address school safety, Green said, she is concerned about Option D’s impact on the budget and the lack of specifics about the cost of training the full-time police officers for the different mission of working in schools instead of on the streets.
“I want to know how we plan to do this,” Green said. “Since we’re knee-jerking, then get out and explain to us how we’re going to pay the additional funds. What’s going to be cut?”
Lewis reiterated that it’s too early in the budget process to know for certain.
“I truly support having a police agency,” Green said. “I am concerned about going from C to D and not being able to identify the impact on our budget.”
Lewis replied, “As the CEO, I’m trying bring you a budget that’s a responsible, prudent budget.” But if the board prefers Option D, he said, “then we will make that work.”
Thomann said the state would pay for the training of each police officer the school district hires.
Buckner wants MCSD to spend more money on mental health instead of police officers. The school in Texas had two officers on site before the shooting, Buckner said, “and they still had an incident. ... What we need to focus on is addressing ways to detect these kids, to detect kids who have these types of problems.”
For that purpose, MCSD is one of three school districts in the state to fully implement Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), Lewis said. The program, according to MCSD’s website, is designed to “increase awareness of mental health issues among school-aged youth, provide training in Youth Mental Health First Aid, and connect children, youth, and families who may have behavioral health issues to appropriate services.”
Referring to the questions from Green and Williams, Myers cracked, “Apparently, we’ve given birth to a couple of fiscal hawks tonight, worrying about how we’re going to pay for this, where we’re going to get the money. Here’s a hint: In a few minutes, we’re going to vote on several million dollars in no-bid contracts. Why don’t we cut those out and see what kind of savings we can have on the money?”
Myers said he hopes Option D “is only a start from which we can build upon, because you cannot put a price tag on the lives of these young people. And with that, I would respectfully move, Madame Chair, that we move this along to a vote so we can all go watch ‘Leave It to Beaver’ or something.”
Then the board debated the issue for another 15 minutes.
Green responded to Myers when she said the board is responsible for being “hawks on the budget. It’s no new birth; it’s a requirement.”
McRae pointed out the start-up costs are estimated with all the proposed police officer positions in mind. Realistically, however, all of them wouldn’t be filled by July 1, when MCSD’s 2019 fiscal year starts, she said.
“I do think the numbers will not be quite as severe,” McRae said.
She also provide perspective about the upgrade. In the district’s overall budget of approximately $300 million, even expanding to Option D amounts to only 1 percent of MCSD’s expenditures being spent on security. And that’s worth allowing the middle schools to join the high schools in having a full-time police officer on staff, McRae said.
“It’s crucial ... to establish positive behavior, positive relationships,” she said. “We’ve got to start when they’re younger in middle school. By the time they end up in high school, a lot of that’s already embedded.”
Chambers described going from part-time to full-time police officers at the high schools and middle schools as a “cultural change for our district. ... I’m looking for some reassurance that the school resource officer is there to protect our children and to partner with the school to increase relationships and to decrease the amount of the arrests. So that is a heartburn for me.”
Lewis said the officers will be trained in the school-wide approach called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports). “They are not there to usurp in any way, shape or form the authority or the responsibility of the school-based administrators,” he said.
In a school district averaging more than one student arrest per school day, Thomann and Lewis insisted the role of full-time police officers on the school staffs would be for protection, not discipline, which would continue to be the administration’s duty.
“We’re not here to police the kids” Thomann said.
Cantrell noted the United States has averaged one school shooting per week this year.
“We have to find a way to find safety for our children,” he said. “... We make sure the Muscogee County School District is ahead of the game, make sure we find a way to make our schools the safest schools in the state of Georgia.”