Swain County commissioners were the first to act locally, promptly hiring three deputies back in January to be stationed at the county’s two elementary schools and its middle school.
In Haywood County, which has 11 elementary schools, school officials are contemplating whether to seek county funding for additional school officers as part of the annual budgeting process that occurs in the spring. In Macon County, a request may also be pending when the budget process cranks up but has not formally been made.
Matthew Wike, a county school board member and sergeant with the N.C. Highway Patrol, brought the proposition before Jackson County commissioners at their meeting this week. The measure called for one officer to be placed at Smokey Mountain Elementary School and another to rove between the county’s three other elementary schools starting in April. The request called for two additional officers to come on board by the start of next school year to give each elementary school a full-time officer.
“We want to see this program move forward,” said Wike, speaking on behalf of the school board, which voted last week to make the formal request.
Currently, Jackson County spends nearly $160,000 a year on the salaries of three school officers, but $150,000 of that is paid for by state at-risk student services funds. Adding four officers would cost the school district an additional $180,000 to $211,000 in salaries a year, plus approximately $150,000 up front to outfit the officers with equipment and four vehicles.
Wike said the cost is worthwhile because Jackson County is known for its education — especially as the site of Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College.
“This is an education county,” Wike said. “The first thing you look at when you move into a county is the education system”
But Jackson County Commissioner Vickie Green said she was not sure that additional officers are the solution to making schools safer. She made a motion to postpone the consideration of any additional officers in county schools until the county goes through the budget process.
“What I want to be able to do is make the best informed decision I can on this issue,” Greene said.
A budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, is typically hashed out in April, May and early June.
All but one of the commissioners voted along with Greene, meaning no additional officers will be funded for this school year at least. County Manager Chuck Wooten said he would include the four officers, their cars and equipment in the draft budget for the coming year so commissioners can see what it would look like.
Commissioner Doug Cody, who also voted to push back the vote, said he would also like time to consider the most effective methods for keeping schools safe.
“To be comfortable in my decision, I’d like to do a little bit more research on it,” Cody said. “I don’t know if (school officers) are the final answer.”
Greene said that many school districts that have added officers in recent years are now second-guessing the strategy and looking to other forms of security, such as video surveillance and secure buildings. Haywood County, like other school districts, is experimenting with video entry systems. Greene added that it may not be prudent to hire school officers right before the summer either when school is not in session.
However, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, who also appeared at the commissioner’s meeting with Wike, said the summer is the prime time for the officers to receive their specialized training.
Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones was the only commissioner in favor of the school system’s request. He voted against postponing a decision. Jones said he would like to have the county explore grants and outside sources of funding to help with the costs.