The Worcester County Commission, like other governments across the state and country, is currently facing a major decision — does it raise the property tax rate to fund School Resource Officers (SROs)?
That could well be the crux of this spring’s budget debate. There is no question hiring 13 full-time SROs at a first-year price tag of about $1.6 million will not get funded without some sort of increase in the taxes local property owners pay. However, what’s unclear today is whether an alternative, less expensive proposal will merit the same conclusion.
While it seems trivial to discuss finances when it comes to maintaining a safe learning environment for our kids in local schools, the reality is this decision is going to come down to money at least partially.
There is no debating in a perfect world SROs would already be in place. Their presence along with some of the security measures already put forward and being applied in local schools will result in the greatest sense of security for parents who leave their kids in local schools each day with the understanding they are safe. Unfortunately, the reality here is the goal needs to be to aim for the most secure school environment possible within the most modest budget.
Even Sheriff Reggie Mason admitted funding is going to be the major issue here, saying “I have no idea where you can find the money” while speaking about his most expensive suggestion, which involved adding 13 full-time trained and armed SROs to all public school facilities. The first-year funding requirement comes in around $1.6 million and about $1 million the second year with a modest decrease expected in following years.
Another option that’s not as pricey would involve hiring part-time SROs that would not require vehicles. The idea is each school would still have SROs, but they would be on a part-time basis considering they would not be needed four months of the year during the summer months and the various other school breaks throughout the year. The sheriff estimated that would drop the expense to under $600,000.
The county is heading into the public budget deliberations with a shortfall of $7.3 million between expected expenses and anticipated revenues. That figure does not include the SROs, and the public is demanding the county do something on the school security front. At the same time, county employees are expected to receive a nice raise in the neighborhood of 3 percent next year after getting a 2-percent raise last year.
The only non-option on the school security front is to do nothing, but the county is going to have to get creative when weighing changes of this magnitude. The part-time option at the lower price tag may be the best bet from a realistic standpoint, considering the full-time solution presented along with falling property tax revenue and significant pay increases for all employees has contributed to an estimated budget deficit in excess of $7.3 million.
If the part-time route is how the county goes, and we think that’s the best option because it covers the presence issue we all want to see at county schools without having financially crippling ramifications, it will need to come with an awareness campaign to educate the concerned public why this was the chosen course of action and assuage fears money concerns kept the schools from being the safest place they possibly could be.