Commissioners, superintendents debate sharing cost of SROs

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

MOUND CITY – Linn County Commissioners and the superintendents from the county’s school district had a face-off of sorts on Monday, July 13, over the county’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program.

Commissioners asked school districts to shoulder some of the cost in 2022. However, while one superintendent said the program was more equitable for his smaller district when the county picked up the bill, they all agreed the SRO program greatly benefited the schools.

Another consideration for the commissioners is a spike in the sheriff’s office budget request for 2022 and how to balance the budget for operating the new jail.

Last month, Sheriff Kevin Friend presented a tentative budget request that was about $680,000 more than the 2021 budget of about $2.6 million. Almost all of that increase was for operating the new, 93-bed jail and did not take into account the amount the county might receive from out-of-county prisoners.

Travis Laver, Pleasanton USD 344 superintendent, told commissioners that when the program began superintendents were looking for protection for students in the schools. However, they did not realize all of the benefits schools were going to get from the SROs.

Laver said that the SRO in the building was a counselor, peer, and big brother for students and helped them with issues at home. Parents often talk with the officer about problems at home, he said.

The SRO at Pleasanton also helps with truancy issues. A door knock means a lot more coming from a SRO than a school district employee, Laver said.

“The SRO is a lot more than what meets the eye and a lot more than we anticipated it would be,” he added.

Prairie View USD 362 Superintendent Rex Bollinger said that the visibility of law enforcement was a great help because of the remoteness of the high school five miles outside La Cygne.

Prairie View has three SROs, one at the high school and one each at the elementary schools in La Cygne and Parker.

He said that officers not only built positive relationships between law enforcement and students in the schools but also did welfare checks on students.

Bollinger related an incident that had occurred nearly five years ago where a student wanted to harm himself, and the SRO was not there. Three school staff had to hold the student down until law enforcement officers arrived from La Cygne 10 minutes or more after they were called.

Shawn Thomas, Jayhawk USD 346 superintendent, pointed out that it was not just a law enforcement responsibility for that officer, but they are in the building to promote a resource that goes into the educational realm as well.

Thomas said that the SROs were in the classroom, dealing with students not in the system, dealing with students not in trouble, and helping them learn more about law enforcement policies.

They create a relationship beyond being just a cop, he said, adding that one SRO at Jayhawk also coaches in the district. Thomas said that having been in districts without SROs that the advantages of having them are tremendous, popular, sound and necessary.

County Commissioner Jim Johnson told the superintendents, that he was the one that was instrumental in getting this meeting to happen.

“It’s not that I am against this, but I tell you what – its’s been brought to our attention that it is a liability issue to us and it’s a huge cost to the county, and I would like to know if you guys would be interested in helping us out any as far as the cost?"

Laver said that when the program was started, it was looked at financially. If it was run through the county, it would spread the cost across the entire county.

The difficulty that school districts have is that their budgets are capped and cannot be raised. The county can raise its budget.

“You are looking at the rich side and the poor side right here,” Laver said. He pointed out that since Prairie View’s valuation is $220 million and Pleasanton’s is $20 million, Prairie View can collect $220,000 for one mil while Pleasanton can only collect $20,000 for one mil. Equity is not there if the individual school district has to pay for it, he added.

Laver pointed out that there are only two budgets from which they can pay for personnel: the general fund and the local option budget. Both of those are based on enrollment and all school districts have taken a huge hit in the monies they received the past year because of lower enrollment, he said.

Bollinger said that he agreed that their budgets were capped. He said that he would be inclined to discuss this with the Prairie View school board before making any commitments. However, he said that Prairie View might have some flexibility because of their valuation.

County Counselor Gary Thompson said that he would envision the SROs continuing to be county employees but could be contractual employees to the schools. Thompson said that the county’s insurance carrier was concerned about the county’s liability and thought that maybe something could be worked out with the school districts.

The Pleasanton school district, Linn County and former Sheriff Paul Filla have been named in a federal civil lawsuit filed last December by a former Pleasanton High School student, who was sexually abused when she was 15 by former SRO officer David Allen Huggins. Huggins, who was 44 at the time, was convicted and is serving a 15-year sentence.

County Clerk David Lamb did mention the lawsuit and possible impact on insurance premiums during the meeting. In a separate interview, however, he said the commission wanted to see more responsibility taken by the school districts to lessen the county’s liability in case similar lawsuits arose.

County Counselor Gary Thompson discounted any connection between the lawsuit and the commission’s request that schools shoulder some financial responsibility. In a separate interview, he said it was more about the approximately $500,000 the county spends annually on the program.

The commissioners wanted to know if the SRO program is really effective, he said. “Clearly, they think it is.”

Commissioner Danny McCullough said on Tuesday that the commission had not really discussed the lawsuit and that was not a concern in their meeting with the superintendents. Throughout the preliminary budget process over the last few weeks, he has been pushing department heads to give the commission updates on activities and justify budget requests for 2022.

During Monday’s meeting Commission Chair Rick James said that in the past, it seemed to him that, for the benefit the school districts received, they did not have much skin in the game since they were not offering much financially. He said he sees that the SRO program is great for the people, but it does obligate the county every year.

However James also said that no one was talking about removing the SROs, but the commission was looking at how to control cost.

Johnson said the sheriff’s budget was really going up and they were looking at a way to help the taxpayers.

McCullough said that he had heard that the SROs might be needing new cars, and maybe the schools could help with that.

However, Laver said that the Pleasanton school district had very little capital outlay funds available for the coming school year.

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