Suffolk should fund resource officers

Published 9:48 pm Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Income taxes, tree pollen and finger-pointing. Those are three of the certainties of April around Suffolk. Now that April 15 has come and gone and the city’s streets, cars, houses and everything else are covered in a film of yellow-green dust, all that’s left is the finger-pointing to remind us that this is the season of new city budgets.

As the Suffolk City Council awaits the opportunity to rubber-stamp the city manager’s proposed spending plan — or, in a scenario somewhat less likely, amend it — there’s plenty of blame going around for the fact that under the proposed budget Suffolk’s school system would get about a third of the increase it had sought in city funding.

School Board members and administrators for the system say they’ve been shortchanged by the city for years, and they’ve taken a dig-their-heels-in approach to budget negotiations this year, refusing to step back from the $9-million increase in local funding they had sought. Meanwhile, they warn that there will be layoffs, program cuts and, perhaps, even a school closure if they don’t get the funding they seek.

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On the other side, members of City Council point out that they don’t have control over how the school system spends the money appropriated to it. School Board members are ultimately in control of the system’s budget, and they can direct administrators to divvy it up however they choose.

There are legitimate points on both sides. But one thing that should be undisputed is the need for Suffolk to have safe schools, and a recent budget-related decision by the school system’s administration puts that safety in jeopardy. In an effort to save money, the system has cut one of the two resource officers assigned to each of the city’s high schools, leaving the remaining officers vulnerable and shorthanded.

Suffolk’s funding solution for the police officers posted at the high schools is unusual in Hampton Roads. Here, the salaries of those resource officers comes from the schools’ budget, as the system must reimburse the city for about 10 months worth of salaries and benefits for each of the officers posted in its schools. Other municipalities provide those officers without taking the cost of their salaries from the schools’ budgets.

At a little more than $550,000, it’s a relatively small charge against a $148-million school budget, but the symbolism of Suffolk’s schools taking money they’ve been given by the city and then giving it back to the city for a service that is ultimately the municipal government’s responsibility is a bit rich.

Without the school resource officers working full-time in the schools, Suffolk would likely face much higher police salary costs, as officers would be unable to interact with teens and help steer them away from trouble. And preventing just one school riot or — God forbid — something much worse makes all the money spent to pay those officers seem utterly unimportant.

Even amidst the seasonal pointing of fingers, City Council should direct that Suffolk schools will no longer have to reimburse the city for the salaries of two police officers per high school. Not only would such an action show members are willing to work with the School Board, it would also help ensure Suffolk is doing all it can to protect its students.