Buncombe County Schools has 44 schools and 21 school resource officers — not enough, officials say, in light of enhanced concerns about student safety.
“The high schools and middle schools have officers,” said interim County Manager George Wood in a memo to commissioners on Aug. 30. “Not all elementary schools do.”
“The need to place SROs at our elementary schools was reinforced as a priority after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary,” the school system wrote in a grant application it submitted to the state for SRO funding.
The system’s application resulted in $333,333 grant that will offset the costs associated with the new officers in the first two years, with part of that money also going to pay for existing SROs. In order to receive the grant funding, the system must also contribute to the increased costs.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 4 agreed to pitch in additional funds to cover the costs of adding six SROs to work in county elementary schools — an expansion with an estimated recurring cost of more than $400,000 per year.
Annual salary and benefits for each new officer run $68,929, plus a one-time cost of $42,576 per officer for vehicles and equipment.
The county school system offered to increase the reimbursement it pays to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department from $340,542 to $526,499 to help pay for the positions.
Buncombe County will shell out $483,073 in the first year, which includes the one-time expenses for equipment, and $227,617 the second year.
While emphasizing that he’s supportive of measures to boost school safety, board Chair Brownie Newman said this is a major financial decision.
“We can’t let short-term grant funding drive what is the most important strategy for making our schools safe,” Newman said. “I want the best strategy to be the driver in what we invest in.” When he talks to principals and teachers, Newman said, he hears about mental health concerns more than any other topic.
“We’re basically making a long-term commitment around this,” he said. “I want to make sure that is this the best decision for how to invest half a million dollars recurring to support school safety.”
Commissioner Al Whitesides, who noted that he has a grandson in middle school, agreed that it’s important to consider the budget when making this decision but said he supports adding SROs while also making an effort to address student mental health issues. “I do think we can take advantage of this [grant] and don’t think it would be a waste of money in doing that,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Belcher said this is an opportunity for the county to use money that taxpayers already paid at the state level. The SRO program works, he said.
“It does a lot more than protect the kids,” Belcher said. “It strengthens the kids, it gives them character, it gives them self-esteem in difficult communities, it encourages them to go home and be better at what they do.”
The system said in its application that it experienced an increase in reportable offenses from the 2009-10 school year through the 2012-13 school year, primarily due to a larger number of reports related to possession of weapons, such as pocketknives, and assaults on school personnel.
The school credits an anti-pocketknife campaign implemented by SROs for the decrease in these rates through the 2016-17 school year.
Commissioners ultimately voted 4-3 to fund the positions with Newman, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Ellen Frost voting against.
With the legacy of former County Manager Wanda Greene sticking to the county like a tick on a dog, commissioners decided unanimously Sept. 4 to push forward with a forensic audit of county finances.
Just don’t expect the results before the end of the year.
“The earliest this would start would be likely the early part of 2019 if the criminal investigation has advanced far enough but not before then,” Newman said.
Federal prosecutors have charged four former county officials, including two former county managers and an assistant county manager, with fraud.
The ordinance says the audit would be performed after the federal investigation is complete and that it would be conducted by an outside firm with no previous or existing auditing contracts with the county.
The Buncombe County Audit Committee will provide a recommendation to the board about the scope and focus of the forensic audit after the federal investigation and current year audit are complete.
Belcher suggested that commissioners amend the ordinance to stipulate that the cost of the audit and the specific firm recommended by the audit committee would come back in front of the board for a final vote, an amendment the commissioners ultimately approved.
Commissioner Mike Fryar initially expressed disagreement with the resolution, saying that the county was getting a little ahead of itself on this issue. “This was just something that was brought forward, put in the newspaper, and now we’re sitting up here voting on something that we don’t know if we’re going to need or not,” Fryar said, “but if you want to waste money, that’s the way to do it at the present time.”
Fryar said he wanted to wait until the federal investigation is complete before committing to an audit. He ultimately voted in support of the ordinance.
“I think the members of our community deserve this,” Beach-Ferrara said. “Taxpayers deserve this. We need to exhaustively understand everything that has contributed to this situation we find ourselves in. … We’ve taken many steps, and there’s many steps yet to take before this will be fully resolved for our community.”
Whitesides said a forensic audit goes beyond rooting out dishonesty. It also gives the county the opportunity to look at the infrastructure of its internal control system. He also acknowledged Fryar’s point regarding the cost of a forensic audit.
“But what price do we put on keeping the trust of our constituents and the taxpayers?” he said. “We’ve got to think about that.”
The next Board of Commissioners meeting will occur at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 18, in the third floor conference room at 200 College St.