Loudon gives 'one more month' on SROs

Vicky Newman-News-Herald

Loudon City Council voted 3-2 Monday to give Loudon County and school officials one more month to decide what to do about school resource officers.

The decision came despite council's united and continued insistence that providing security at schools is not the city's responsibility.

"You've won a reprieve," Loudon Mayor Judy Keller told residents attending. "You have one month to go to the county school board and commissioners. I will not vote this way next time."

Keller cast the deciding vote on the motion to reject a county compromise offer.

The vote came after residents complained that most parents and teachers were not aware of what was happening in the schools.

Budget shortfalls have brought SRO funding to the forefront this year. For 12 years, the two SRO positions have been funded primarily by the city. The Loudon County Board of Education reimburses an amount of $29,500 per officer each year. The city's cost for salary and benefits runs $157,000 a year for two officers. The city has requested a $120,000 reimbursement.

The officers will not be out of jobs if SRO positions are eliminated. Instead, officers now assigned to schools would be reassigned to reduce overtime costs.

Thus far, the county BOE's best offer has been $33,000 reimbursement over a period three years, which the city deemed unacceptable.

About a dozen people showed up at the meeting to address the issue, which was the last item on the agenda. Shanna Rucker, who had appeared before the council in May, said she had been unsuccessful in attempts to contact county school officials.

"I called and left numerous messages," Rucker said. "I'm not a politician and maybe they don't take me seriously, but I am serious."

Rucker is a parent and teacher in the county school system. She said she had talked to Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider, who relayed that he did not have funds to provide SROs in Loudon.

"Can you put a price on the safety of our kids?" she asked. Similar sentiments were expressed by several other parents who accompanied her.

Keller said the question was posed to the wrong governmental body. Rucker needed to talk to the county, Keller said.

"The county put us out to dry," Keller said. "We made them a sweetheart deal and they turned it down."

Also attending the meeting was Van Shaver, BOE member, and Michael Garren, assistant director of county schools.

Shaver said he was attending as a resident and did not represent the school board. However, he said he felt that security at any location in a jurisdiction was the responsibility of the law enforcement agency of that jurisdiction.

"The school board decided to make a contribution for SROs, but that was before my time," Shaver said. "The schools are in the city. Whoever is responsible for security in that area is responsible for the SROs in the school. Now, I'm just speaking as a person, not on behalf of the school board."

Garren pointed out that the county schools had found it necessary to cut nine positions to deal with new education standards. "We had to take $200,000 from reserves to get to where we are in the budget," Garren said.

Lynn Mills, city manager, told council members that Scott Newman, BOE chairman, had asked that the county's budgeted $33,000 reimbursement offer be accepted for one SRO officer to work primarily at Loudon High School and with secondary responsibility at Loudon Elementary School. The move would give the county a year to come up with funding or a solution.

"The salaries cost $77,000, and if the county reimburses $33,000, that's still $44,000 a year we will be spending," Mills said. He asked if the board wished to consider that counter offer.

"My preference is that the county pay the $30,000 (additional money) we requested per officer. There are a lot of benefits from the (SRO) relationships, and we prefer to do that but our budget has been impacted by tax appeals," Mills said.

The school district's response has been that the amount they reimburse Loudon for SROs is the same amount as they reimburse for SROs at other locations. SROs at Philadelphia, Greenback and other county schools are provided by Loudon County Sheriff's Department.

Loudon City Council members feel SROs should be provided by the county. If they are provided through the city, they receive the same benefits and salary increases as other city employees.

Loudon Councilman Mike Cartwright said the overriding perception is that the city is discontinuing SRO positions. Cartwright offered an analogy to describe why the issue is unfair to the city. "It's like you needed help, and we offered to mow your grass for you," he said. "It's been 10 years now and gas is $4 a gallon, and now we need you to help out to keep doing it.

"We're going to look bad no matter what we do," Cartwright said. "I have been crunching numbers all weekend. It looks like the true cost is not $150,000, but $40,000."

Mills said Cartwright's numbers did not include benefits or factor in overtime. Keller said she did not understand the computations.

Councilman Lynn Millsaps said his position on the issue had not changed. "We've spent $1.4 million already and I am for putting a stop to it," he said.

Councilwoman Judy Jones said the issue needed to be put to rest. Millsaps made a motion to that effect and Jones seconded the motion. Keller asked for a roll call vote. Cartwright and Parks voted "no," and Keller broke the tie with a "no" vote.

Newman was attending a class in Nashville and was not at the meeting. When contacted later, he said the issue will need to be brought up for discussion again.

"We can't start school without a school resource person in this day and age," he said. "This whole situation has gotten out of hand. We voted to give them $33,000. It's in the budget. I don't know if we as a school board can come up with more."

In other action, council:

● Agreed to get bids for a replacement garbage truck. To offset that cost, the council will look at a proposal for implementing commercial garbage collection fees at the next workshop meeting.

● Amended the debt management policy to allow refunding of existing debt with variable interest rates.

● Adopted a resolution authorizing the issuance of general obligation refunding bonds in an amount not to exceed $7.5 million.

● Authorized roof repairs for the Loudon Post Office building. Mills said the insurance adjustor had determined it was damaged in the storms of 2011.

● Approved the paving and repair of a portion of Roberts Road.

● Approved an amendment to continue the intergovernmental agreement for operation of the Planning and Community Development Department.