County Weighs New School Security Plan; Cheaper Alternative Tabled

SNOW HILL — With deadlines ticking down, the Worcester County Commissioners further reviewed possible school security plans Tuesday, including a third alternative that would significantly cut costs from the previous two options.

Coming in at $444,739, the Worcester County Sheriff Office’s Plan 3 would include the hiring of nine new deputies, seven of which would be part-time with the remaining two full-time. A $125,000 federal grant would lower the $444,739 to an end total of $319,739. After the first year, Sheriff Reggie Mason only anticipates salary costs, further dropping the annual expense in the second year and beyond to about $210,000. The first two proposals had come in at $1.7 million and $596,000, respectively.

The original plan would have provided the most coverage with 13 full-time deputies. The second proposal would have trimmed costs by hiring part-time deputies with less equipment costs. Another option would have brought municipal police into the equation and paid local departments to station officers at schools. Those plans, however, are considered expensive, prompting Mason to come up with the alternative he discussed this week.

“With the current budget restraints our county faces, I have been asked if I could come up with a plan less expensive than the two previously submitted,” wrote Mason in a letter to the commission. “I now submit Plan 3, that I feel will work for all; keeping safety first, as well as cost less.”

Mason was the first to admit, however, that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with only hiring nine new officers, the majority of which being part-time, when the original expectation was for 13 new deputies. But he told the commission that it had room to grow and was the best his office could do with the county’s repeated requests to lower the cost.

“It’s not really enough people … but it’s a start,” he said.

Under Plan 3, only Showell Elementary and Ocean City Elementary schools would receive their own officers who would patrol the buildings during school hours. A single deputy would be split between Worcester Technical High School and the Board of Education building, another deputy would cover Stephen Decatur High and Middle schools, and yet another would be responsible for Berlin Intermediate and Buckingham Elementary schools.

Both Snow Hill and Pocomoke would only have one deputy each to serve all of their community’s schools meaning that one officer would cover Snow Hill Elementary, Middle and High schools, while the final part-time deputy would rotate between Pocomoke Elementary, Middle, and High schools. The two full-time deputies would serve as floaters who would fill in at schools when their primary officer has rotated to another building. One full-time deputy would manage the northern end of Worcester while the second is charged with the south end.

“For the deputies that have more than one school to cover when leaving one school to check on their other schools, the full time deputy will come in to fill those voids until the part time deputy assigned returns,” Mason submitted.

Finally, Plan 3 would call for the promotion of Sgt. Michael Bowen to lieutenant. Bowen would manage the program and also serve as a floating officer in the southern section.

Like Mason, Superintendent of Schools Jerry Wilson told the commissioners that he considered Plan 3 more of a starting point than an end solution.

“What this plan does is it gets us started. It doesn’t mean that we’re limited to this plan for the long-range but it does begin somewhere,” he said.

Even with the rotations and filler deputies, Commissioner Virgil Shockley pointed out southern Worcester would have gaps in service with four officers expected to provide security to six different schools. Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw believed the plan was not fair for Pocomoke and Snow Hill.

“It’s still not a level playing field. I think that all life is precious whether it be in Snow Hill, Ocean City, wherever,” he told Mason. “And I don’t think that this plan is being equal to the south-end of the county.”

Shockley offered his own version of a security plan that he estimated would cost $572,000 after applying a federal grant. That would provide for two full-time deputies and nine part-timers.

“If we’re going to do this, we need to do it right and do everything we can to do it right the first time out,” he said.

No decision was made this week, but the commission did appoint Lockfaw and Shockley to a committee to review security options with Mason. As it stands, $604,000 has been set aside in this year’s budget for school security officers. Shockley called the four plans that did come in under that cost “viable” and said they were all still on the table.

A decision needs to happen soon, Mason told the commission, because training must begin immediately if Worcester wants to have officers in place at schools before the next school year begins at the end of August.