Swain County leaders quickly endorsed a plan to hire two new school resource officers back in January — for its two elementary schools — following a deadly shooting at Newton, Conn. The high school and middle school both already had an existing resource officer.
At the time, the county commissioners agreed to pay half the cost of the two new school resource officers starting with the new fiscal year in July. The school system would pick up the other half.
But amid budget woes, the county commissioners told school officials that they would not help pay the salaries after all — even though the two officers were already hired.
In fact, the county not only pulled the plug on its contribution toward the two newly hired resource officers but quit contributing to the salary of the existing two resource officer as well.
“The commissioners asked me if we could cut back on the school appropriation,” said Swain County Manager Kevin King. “(School leaders) were not very excited about that. Of course, I wasn’t either.”
The annual cost of all four school resource officers is more than $150,000 — an amount the school system will now shell out by itself.
“We were going to share those. It looks like we may need to pay for 100 percent of those. We didn’t anticipate that,” said Jan Letandre, finance director for Swain County Schools.
While the loss of the school resource officer allocation is a blow, Swain County has never been a big spender when it comes to local school funding.
Only 4 percent of the school system’s budget, or $900,000, comes from the county. In Haywood County by comparison, 21 percent of the school system’s budget comes from the county.
To compensate, Swain County Schools has gotten good at squirreling away money in its fund balance when it can.
“We have been good about husbanding our resources. We do the best we can with what we have,” Letandre said. “We think we are going to be OK in terms of what the county provides.”
Whether to add more school resource officers has been a recurring topic since the Sandy Hook tragedy.
In Haywood County, commissioners flatly told school leaders that the county would have to increase property taxes if the school wanted to hire more resource officers. The school board quickly backed off its request, not wanting to take the blame for a property tax increase and not wanting to pay for the new officers out of its existing budget.
In Jackson County, commissioners agreed to pay for one new resource officer, although the school system had asked for four. In Macon County, the school system requested two additional school resource officers, but county commissioners only approved one.
The Swain County commissioners are still in favor of having more school resource officers, but they needed to cut funding for something, King said.
“It got down to the wire, and the board didn’t want to raise taxes,” he said.
However, the commissioners did vote to increase taxes this fiscal year by 3 cents, raising its property tax rate to 36 cents per $100 of value. The increase is expected to bring in $400,000 in additional tax revenue. But even with the tax increase, the county is cutting $500,000 from its budget — cuts that include the school resource officer contribution.