SRO contract needs updating

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lewisburg and Marshall County have an out-of-date contract on how school resource officers should be funded, so last week the City Council made decisions and is waiting for reactions from the county school board.

However, the Council's discussion toward steps for a better agreement with the county revealed: a still festering issue from the voluntary reassignment of a former police chief; and why an SRO is especially needed at Lewisburg Middle School next fall.

* The Alternative School at Spot Lowe Technology Center may be moved to Lewisburg Middle School at a time when its director has retired. It's a concern for Councilor Robin Minor, a history teacher at LMS.

Moving the Alternative School is a goal, Schools Director Stan Curtis said, "but we haven't gotten it through the budget. We're trying to expand the school so 'zero toloranced' students who are at home can return to the regular school system."

An example of a "zero toloranced" student is one who was caught with illegal drugs.

Space is limited at the Spot Lowe center, Curtis said. But if rooms below the gymnasium can be used, and "if we can get it through the budget process, we probably won't expand it to more than 20-25 students... at the first," he said. Later, depending on circumstances, the Alternative School's enrollment might be expanded.

The school board could deal with that issue and one on SRO funding during its July 9th meeting, Curtis said.

Meanwhile, Curtis and Minor are of like minds on the need for an SRO at LMS: "Most definitely," the schools director said.

* The SRO discussion was started because City Hall received a proposed contract from the school system, city manager Eddie Fuller said.

"When we first did this in 1998-99, we had a $40,000 budget," Fuller explained.

The agreement was that the city would provide $10,000 and the county would provide the rest. It was funded on that premise when the county was getting a $30,000 grant. County Commissioner Larry McKnight, chairman of the County Commission's Education Committee, who attended the June 23 Council meeting, said the grant is now about $27,500.

"Doug Alexander was the first" SRO at LMS, Fuller said. "The county always provided its share and as time went on, Connie (Edde, the city treasurer) just accepted whatever they gave us...

"Then in 2006-07," Fuller said of the SRO program's cost, "it got higher."

Minor and Councilor Ronald McRady discussed the increase and Mayor Barbara Woods, a former principal at LMS, pointed out that the increase "was decided under different circumstances."

"Dang right," Councilor Quinn Brandon reacted.

She confronted Alexander late in his tenure as police chief over department issues and Alexander declined to answer the councilor's questions. Brandon's confrontation with Alexander came as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was assigned to look into how an underage drinking case was handled. Alexander was also investigating that situation. No charge was filed, but the confrontation seemed to have died when Alexander returned to LMS as its SRO.

"We've got ... a gentleman's agreement," City Attorney Bill Haywood said, "that he would continue to make what he was paid when he stepped down from chief if he became an SRO."

"And," Minor interjected, "all that was to avoid a lawsuit."

Even so, Brandon and others have been disgruntled that the city's SRO is paid quite a bit more than the SROs who are sheriff's deputies. Numbers tossed around during the Council meeting indicate the LMS SRO is paid nearly $60,000 while others are paid $23,000.

Brandon acknowledged others on the Council disagree with her position against paying an SRO so much more than others, regardless of the situation, but that also has an effect on a city contract with the county school board which hasn't been honored in recent years.

McRady concluded, "Regardless of how you fix it, I'd like to see it [the agreement with the county] signed by both parties."

Haywood noted the city-county contract on an SRO for LMS is an open-ended agreement, but how Alexander is paid is a separate issue.

Police Chief Chuck Forbis advised that in other communities he's served, or observed, the cost of an SRO is equally shared. Forbis said the contract is open-ended, called that "bad business," and agreed with Minor and Curtis: an SRO is needed at Lewisburg Middle School.

More discussion on the subject concluded with a consensus that the contract on paying SROs should be returned to the School Board. A vote on a counter proposal may be conducted at the next meeting of the Council later this summer. The councilors seemed to be in agreement that an SRO serving a city school should be paid by both governments.

"We've sent them an unsigned contract," Fuller said of the city-county agreement between the two entities. "We just want it to be what the contract says."