Updated: May 17
MOUND CITY – The Linn County Commission has voted to stop paying for the School Resource Officer (SRO) program beginning next year. The decision came in a unanimous vote by commissioners at their meeting on Monday, May 2.
The funding will likely end at the end of this December with the end of the county’s fiscal year.
That decision by the commission has sparked a backlash from school personnel, parents and at least one city administrator. One parent has sponsored a petition that asks the commission to reinstate the program.
Teal Briggs, who has children in the Prairie View district, created both paper and online petitions to keep the program. She said that keeping the SROs in the schools was vital to their safety.
By Tuesday at noon the online petition had received nearly 170 signatures, and several people who posted on Facebook indicated they planned to attend the commission meeting next Monday, May 9, to protest the decision.
Rex Bollinger, superintendent for Prairie View USD 362, and Superintendent Travis Laver from Pleasanton USD 344 were caught off guard by the commission’s decision. Shawn Thomas, superintendent for Jayhawk USD 346, was not available for comment.
Both Laver and Bollinger took issue with the timing of the commission’s decision. In a process that stretched back to early last fall, the commission and two of the school districts had approved paying $12,000 for each SRO in their district. Prairie View has three SROs and Jayhawk has two, one for each building.
Pleasanton’s superintendent said the district had given the county money from a grant to help pay for the SRO, but because it has the least funds of all three districts, it offered to trade out services, such as housing Pleasanton's senior nutrition program in a district building, in exchange for the single SRO in the district.
“I am very concerned about the decision made today,” Laver said in a statement released Monday, “especially after the fact that we have been told all along that the commissioners were not planning to cut the program.
“The three district leaders have remained pretty soft spoken throughout the process, however, that will no longer be the case. It’s worth the fight for the safety and well being of our staff and students.”
Bollinger said that after all the time the school districts had been working with the county to resolve the issue of funding for the program, the commission’s sudden decision to stop funding the program was frustrating. “Why go through all of that and then cut it,” he said.
Pleasanton to seek way to keep program
Theresa Whitaker, city administrator for Pleasanton, said she was surprised by the commission's decision to cut funding to the program. She said the city would look at ways it could help keep the SRO program in place.
"Kids feel safe with a badge," she said, adding that children who are being hit or sexually abused need a trusted person to which to turn.
Linn County Sheriff Kevin Friend said on Tuesday that his office was already looking at alternative sources for the program. Karrie Barker, a Linn County resident who works for the Olathe Police Department, contacted Friend about a COPS grant through the U.S. Justice Department.
Friend said a $123,000 grant through that program helped get the SRO program started in Linn County in 2015 under former Sheriff Paul Filla. When the county found other funding for the SRO program, it did not apply for the grant again, however, Bourbon County continues to use that grant program for SROs.
Although he wasn’t sure whether Linn County could get back in the program, he said that Undersheriff Bobby Johnson was headed to meet with Greenbush educational resource center in Girard, Kan., this week to meet with staff that could help with the grant.
Friend, who has been a steadfast supporter of the SRO program, said that because the program puts an SRO deputy in the schools, students needing assistance get it quicker than if school was left to its own resources. When a Child in Need of Care case comes to the SRO, they have more resources and can quickly put the child in protective custody and find shelter for them.
He pointed to a recent case where a child in one of Linn County’s schools was suicidal and the parents refused to get the child help. The SRO drove the child to a Children’s Mercy hospital in the metro area, spending 15 hours that day helping that student get the help that was needed.
He also pointed out that the SRO officers not only go through the Kansas Law Enforcement Academy for regular training, but they go through a separate SRO training to help them deal with children.
Taxes cited as reason to drop funding
On Monday, when Commissioner Rick James broached the subject of the SRO program, he first talked about how important it is to have discussions about the county budgets before it was time to approve the 2023 budget.
“Taxes just keep going up and up and up,” said James.
James said that “revenue neutral,” or not increasing county taxes, should not just be the goal for the county. While last year Linn County met the goal of not increasing taxes, many other counties, cities and school districts did not meet it.
James said that when Commission Chair Jim Johnson first came into office, he asked why the county funded the SROs at the schools and whether the county should fund the program. James also pointed out that while he believed SRO program was good for the community, it should not be funded by the county.
He explained at the beginning the county helped get it started with grants that they had applied for.
James said that he would like to see the issue of SROs go back to the school districts. There are three school districts with elected officials, and they can decide how important security is to them.
The commissioner said he talked with Linn County Sheriff Kevin Friend about the issue and that the sheriff was going to put the SRO program in his budget.
James said if the county did not approve the $300,000 in the sheriff’s budget for SROs, they were not withholding that money from the school districts but giving it back to the taxpayers. The school districts could put it in their budgets and fund the program if they wanted to.
He said that the school districts might decided to fund it themselves, create their own police departments as Prairie View USD 362 did several years ago, hire security guards, or simply drop the program.
Johnson said that the elementary school at Jayhawk did not have a SRO all year and now the high school did not have one.
“To me the schools need to step up and own the program,” said Johnson.
James said he would like to drop roughly that $300,000 from the sheriff’s budget, and give that money back to the taxpayers. He said he goal was not to just withhold the money but to give it back and reduce the mill levy at the same time.
Johnson said he was in favor of that and the commission unanimously voted to tentatively remove the SRO item from the sheriff’s budget for 2023.
Commissioner Danny McCullough asked if there was going to be further discussions with the school districts.
James said that, at this time, there would not be further discussions.