2018-06-15 / Front Page

Full cost of resource officers unclear

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Late into the budget season — after municipal budgets for next year have been set and committed to voters, in fact — selectmen in the Kennebunks have agreed to foot the bill to place a police officer in every RSU 21 school.

However, that decision was met with reservation from some Kennebunk selectmen.

“I do feel that the school board has not given us a fair opportunity to weigh in on this — to think about it, to roll around in the details,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said, during a May 29 board meeting. “I would encourage them in the future to think of us more as partners and collaborators, because, let’s face it, we represent all of the legislative body, and they represent only a small portion.”

Chairman Dick Morin said the town has logged requests for school representatives — administrators and/or school directors — to address selectmen on their budgeting needs. Repeatedly.

“It’s not because we haven’t asked,” he said.

The plan is to hire four new school resource officers (SROs) — enough to place one fulltime in all six RSU 21 school buildings. Currently, RSU 21 stations one resource officer at the middle school and one the high school.

The towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport will each hire, train, outfit and equip two of those officers, while the school district will pay 75 percent of the annual salary for each. During the summer and at other times when school is not in session, those SROs would become extra patrol officers for their respective towns.

Because of how Year 1 of the expanded SRO program will fall across the fiscal year, the town’s would only end up covering payroll for the last week of June 2019, meaning a minimal impact to municipal budgets (about $4,000 is the estimate) that can be easily absorbed in the approved budgets already set for town meeting approvals.

For Year 2, to start July 1, 2019, police chiefs in both Kennebunk and Kennebunkport both say the new cops will replace reserve officers and/or summer spending on overtime, meaning the town’s 25 percent share of the full salary hit will be less than might be otherwise expected.

Kennebunk Finance Director Joel Downs said in a May 31 email that, “The RSU reimburses us for 40 weeks out of 52. For fiscal year 19-20, the town’s cost for 12 weeks for two SROs is currently estimated to be approximately $43,400. However, the PD (police department) will not need to staff two summer reserves during those 12 weeks, saving an estimated $18,000. Thus, the net cost for the SROs will be about $25,400.”

Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith did not respond to a June 1 request for a similar Year 2 cost estimate for Kennebunkport.

However, the municipal hit for the SRO’s is not limited to the officers alone. The agreement with the school district calls on the towns to supply each officer with a police cruiser, meaning two new vehicles added to the fleet in each town.

Smith did say in a June 4 email that selectmen in the Port likely will not address ways to cover that cost until after the school budget validation vote on June 12, and Kennebunkport’s annual town meeting on June 16.

Kennebunk Town Manager Mike Pardue also has not identified where funding will come from, but has said he is unlikely to authorize purchase of new cruisers off the showroom floor.

“I certainly would urge that we look at program-type vehicles,” he said May 29, referring to cars returned to a dealer at the end of a lease period.

“These are vehicles (the school resource officers) need to have with them, clearly, for communications and other purposes, but they certainly don’t need to be brand new vehicles,” he said.

The drive to beef up security in local schools took off in earnest in the immediate wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It was at that point, with town and school budgets already in progress, that some began to ask whether the time had come to place an armed officers in all six district schools.

During an April 2 school board meeting, Superintendent

Katie Hawes said plans were in place to install about $100,000 in new security cameras, but that hiring additional police officers might have to wait until some form of federal grant funding could be secured. However, several parents in the audience, and not a few school board members at the main table, spoke up, suggesting the money to hire armed security could be found, if that was deemed the best means of keeping kids safe.

At an April 12 meeting of the school board’s finance subcommittee, it was decided to go ahead and make that addition, rather than wait around for federal funding. Instead, the committee asked Hawes to reach out to police chiefs in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport and strike a deal, resulting in the 75/25 salary split.

According to Kennebunk school director Matt Fadiman, who chairs the school board finance committee, the $280,000 cost to the RSU for 75 percent of four SROs was covered without moving the budget needle by cutting $80,000 from the amount that had been set aside for new security cameras, and because the hike in annual health insurance premiums came in $200,000 less than an initial estimate.

The full school board never voted on the resulting change in the budget, made since the first reading on March 19. Instead, the addition of the four new resource officers was presented by Fadiman at the final budget reading on April 30.

Still, it could be said that the full board did indeed memorialize that change by the time it wrapped a series of five budget amendments — none of which passed — on the way to unanimously adopting a final $48.13 million budget plan for the 2018-2019 school year.

At that meeting, an effort was launched to add a Grade 5 teacher at the Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel and to restore a Grade 4 teacher at Kennebunkport Consolidated School, a position that had been cut due to declining enrollment, with the teacher shifted to another open job. As the board discussed the staffing issues, some, and later all, of the new school resource officer posts were offered up as possible cuts. In the end, the budget was adopted as Fadiman presented it, with the resource officers, but not the additional teachers.

At the district budget meeting on May 16, Kennebunk resident John Costin — a member of the town budet board and husband of school board member Rachel Phipps — moved to eliminate funding for the four new school resource officers (SRO).

“We have been all the way through our budget process, save for one public hearing and approval by the legislative body, and we were not aware of this item,” he said, claiming he and his peers were not brought into the loop on the proposal until a May 11 meeting.

“It’s my personal opinion this is a little bit rushed,” he said. “I think everyone in this room care about making our schools safe, but we want to do it right. We want to make sure we have the funding to support this, at all levels.”

Only two people voted in favor of Costin’s motion, with more than 180 voting to maintain the annual school budget as presented.

Kennebunk resident Gail Spofford suggested that if a mass shooting incident were to occur, local parents would demand, as they have in other places across the country, that the building be torn town. That, she said, would be a massive gut punch to the wallet, on top of the obvious emotional impact, given the $56.5 million just spent to renovate and expand three of the schools.

“Quite frankly, as a taxpayer, I can’t afford that,” she said, “I’d rather spend the money on something we hope would be preventative.”

At their May 29 meeting, Kennebunk selectmen voted 5-1 to support the SRO agreement, with Dan Boothby voting no and Shiloh Schulte absent.

Like Costin, Boothby said he was not against school security, or even adding two new SRO’s to the Kennebunk PD roster. Instead, he felt cheated by out a a fair budget process by the late addition of the item.

“I’m not against officers in the school or extra firefighters,” he said. “I’m just against not going through the proper process. We have this (town) budget that we’ve been working on since January. We’ve given the people time to look it, to read it, to give input on it, but here we’re just racing through this item. I just don’t think it’s a fair process.”

Boothby suggested there may also be other hidden costs, in addition to the need for additional vehicles.

“You say there’s no impact, but there will be. You can’t add people and not have an impact,” Boothby said. “We’re going to have a fleet of SROs here. Are we going to need somebody to manage them?”

Police Chief Robert MacKenzie allowed that he may need to promote one existing officer to a sergeant’s position, in order to have “24/7 supervisory coverage” and to oversee the resource officers.

“That’s in discussion. We have to think that trough,” he said.

Laura White, who has children in both Kennebunk elementary schools chimed in, taking responsibility for instigating the SRO drive

“I think you’re right. It probably was quick,” she said. “But because that’s an idea that came forward quickly, I think we can also take that to mean this is a really important issue that the citizens of this town and all over really care about. There are cray things going on in the world. We cannot pretend that this is a risk that is not imminent.”

Meanwhile, another parent, Beth Fawcett, said selectmen might regret scuttling the deal.

“If we face an event like some of these other towns have faced, you are going to get a lawyer who comes along who gets ahold of the video from this meeting, if (the vote) doesn’t go the right way, who will say, ‘Look, they didn’t vote (to secure) this school,’ and you’re going to be facing lawsuits. If we have an event in this district we are going to be facing some major issues,” she said.

That prompted former selectman Deborah Beal to rise and take the podium.

“I almost take that as a threat, that if you don’t push this through you’re going to have lawyers going down your back,” she said. “Well, I don’t think we’ve looked at all of our options. We haven’t explored all of the other ways we can make our kids safe. I think we are rushing through this just because the school board says it’s a good idea. I’m not willing to say let’s spend $5 million (over 10 years) and see if it was needed or not.”

“This is a multi-faceted problem,” Morin replied. “It is not something that SRO’s alone will solve. But I think we have to put it in perspective. This board is not being asked to fund half-a-million dollars. We are being asked to fund $26,000, and then maybe $40,000 for some cars.”

Pardue told Kennebunk selectmen their peers in Kennebunkport had already voted to fund their two SROs, including the one who will be stationed at MLD in Arundel, on the belief Kennebunk will cover costs for SROs at the two elementary schools within its boundary lines. Some of the board seemed nonplussed that selectmen in the Port would agree to pay for the Arundel SRO, but appeared otherwise impressed with the reported commitment.

Kennebunkport selectmen did discuss the SRO deal at their May 24 meeting, but apart from calling the proposal “a good idea,” did not conduct a formal vote. Nor did the town’s budget board, call into session to hear the concept.

“The budget board will not take a vote as there is not a budgetary impact in fiscal year 19,” Smith said in her June 4 email. “The selectmen are in agreement that we would supply additional officers, but didn’t take a vote on the number as there were still a number of issues in play. Those include agreement with the Arundel selectmen that Kennebunkport would supply the SRO, that Kennebunk would supply two SRO’s and that the school budget is validated on June 12. After the budget vote we will take a vote on the hiring of the offices.”

The bigger question in Kennebunkport was whether Police Chief Craig Sanford would be able to fill the openings, given a statewide paucity of eligible police officers. Sanford said he felt confident he could find qualified personnel, although they may not come with police academy certifications. And he felt confident he could absorb the expansion into his existing budget. But the bottom line, he said, is that he’s got a need for the new officers, whenever they are not serving in the schools.

“As we all know, in this community, the summer months are very, very busy here,” he said. “So, to have an extra body or two to help out would be immense. Those folks will not just be sitting around during the summer. They’ll be put to good use.”

Selectman Stuart Barwise added that nobody should construe Kennebunkport’s willingness to pay for the MLD resource officer as a failure on the part of Arundel selectmen.

“This shouldn’t be construed as Arundel not supporting (an SRO),” he said. “It’s just that they are not asking to be the beneficiary of that additional (summer police) service.”

Arundel does not have a police force of its own. Instead, it contracts with the York County Sheriff’s Office to provide dedicated coverage. Town meeting voters agreed last year to double the size of that contracted service to two full-time deputies, for which it bought a new cruiser.

At the May 14 selectmen’s meeting in Arundel, Town Manager Keith Trefethen said Kennebunkport had already agreed to fund the SRO for Arundel. If selectmen wanted to take on the MLD resource officer next year by hiring another deputy and outfitting him or her with a cruiser, it would cost $57,000, he said.

Some on the board didn’t seem to see the point of stationing a police officer in MLD at all.

“What’s a school resource officer in a K-5 school going to do all day — search a 6-year-old for drugs? What?” asked board chairman Thomas Danylik.

Supporters of the SROs, including White and Fawcett, have said the officers build a rapport with kids, helping to establish trust in the police while also eyeballing and providing intervention for those students who might become a safety risk down the road.

“If you want to do it, it’s going to be costly for us to provide,” Trefethen said.

“We can’t keep piling on our budget, even if it’s mostly in the next fiscal year,” Danylik said.

The board voted 5-0 to support Kennebunkport and Kennebunk shouldering the cost of the four new SROs.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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