The board voted 6-to-2 Monday to kill a pending request with the county for more school resource officers and guidance counselors in elementary schools. The school board and county commissioners have been playing a game of hot potato with the issue for a few months now.
School leaders never stood firmly behind their request to the county, and instead left the ball in county commissioners’ court. It irked commissioners that school leaders weren’t willing to take ownership of the request.
County leaders had told school officials that they didn’t have an additional $500,000 to fund four additional cops and four additional guidance counselors without raising property taxes.
So county commissioners finally forced the school board’s hand. Commissioners told the school board to make a formal declaration, an up or down vote, on whether they were or weren’t asking for the budget increase.
“If they are not going to put themselves on the line to ask for that, then how can we as commissioners?” asked Commissioner Kevin Ensley.
For the last week, the school board and county commissioners have played a heated game of finger pointing. The commissioners want the school board to stand confidently behind its request for new positions. Meanwhile, the school board members think county leaders are trying to force them into taking any blame for a tax increase.
“They are trying to pin us to the wall,” said Steven Kirkpatrick, a school board member. “They are the county commissioners, and they raise taxes, not us.”
School leaders say they were caught off guard when commissioners tied the request for school officers to a tax increase during a budget discussion on April 30.
“We always present our budget every year,” said Superintendent Anne Garrett. “They have never asked for a tax increase.”
School board members agreed that they did their job by presenting the school system’s budget to the commissioners, and it was up to county leaders now to decide what to fund and how to fund it.
“We are asking for things to make our schools safe,” said Board of Education member Rhonda Schandevel. “We are being told that it is our fault [if taxes go up].”
When school leaders went before commissioners the following week on May 6 to talk about the request a second time, School Chairman Chuck Francis said that technically, the request presented to the county by the school superintendent hadn’t officially been voted on by the school board. Francis said the formal vote would not be held until this week (May 13).
Commissioners said the school board’s dithering surprised them.
“It’s been a frustrating experience,” said County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger. “They have to step up and tell us what they think.”
County revenues will remain pretty flat next year, meaning there is little or no money for extras like the $500,000 yearly cost of the eight new employees. The only way to pay the annual expense is with a property tax increase, according to commissioners.
“The money can’t fall out of the sky,” Swanger said. But as soon as a tax increase was mentioned, “they start running for the hills.”
Prior to mention of a tax increase, school board members spoke about the need for more school resource officers to be shared on a roving basis among elementary schools. Currently, only the middle and high schools have officers.
But at their May 13 meeting, most school board members indicated that the need for school resource officers was not great enough to warrant a property tax increase.
“I want to make sure our schools are safe, but I am not in favor of a tax increase,” said Jim Harley Francis, a school board member.
Schandevel and Jimmy Rogers were the only two school board members who wanted to go forth with a formal request to the county for officers and guidance counselors.
Sharpening the pencil
Both commissioners and school board members have said both entities need to review their budgets and see if there isn’t some way to at least partially fund the school system’s appeal for more officers and counselors without a tax increase.
“Make sure everything is looked at before we look at a tax increase,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.
If the school system dipped into its fund balance for some one-time expenses rather than bringing them to the commissioners, then the county’s money might stretch farther and make some room for expenses such as the school resources officers, commissioners said.
Both Swanger and Upton suggested that the school system use some of its $3.8 million fund balance to pay for safety-related capital improvements to schools, such as the installation of new locks or possibly a swipe entry system for students and employees. The fund balance is often called a rainy day fund.
“This might be the rainy day,” Upton said.
Based on the limited amount of feedback county residents have provided, most are against the idea of raising taxes.
“It seems like the emails I have got have been negative towards it,” Ensley said, adding that in face-to-face conversations, people are more amenable to paying more for resource officers. But “I think there is probably more opposition.”
Fellow commissioners Kirk Kirkpatrick and Mike Sorrells remarked that of the few comments they’ve received, most express anti-tax sentiments as well.
“Most that I am getting are not sure that SROs are the answer,” Sorrells said.
A crowd of more than 80 parents, children and resident filled the Education Center for the school board meeting Monday, but by the time talk about the school resource officers rolled around, no one remained in the audience. Earlier in the meeting, only one person, Andrew Jackson, got up to oppose the tax increase.
“We pay enough,” Jackson said.
He also informed the school board about a vote of the Haywood County Republican Party Executive Board. The board voted 24-to-1 against the increase.
Kirkpatrick has repeatedly questioned whether more school resource officers are worth the investment, considering the remote chances that a school shooting would occur — particularly at elementary schools, which are the only county schools without at least a part-time officer.
“You have a much better chance of your child being killed or harmed on the way to school,” Kirkpatrick said.
“It is going to take a lot to convince me that those SROs are the answer to the problem,” he added later.