It would not be unusual for Board of Finance school budget deliberations to extend to three hours or more. But despite the intention to do so on March 6, finance officials never cracked open the school budget book.
Instead, they heard public comment and spent the rest of their special meeting originally scheduled to take up the district budget proposal, trying to get a better understanding about the scope and cost of future school security measures.
Before adjourning around 10:20 pm, Chairman John Kortze announced his board would instead take up school budget discussions Monday, March 11 and if necessary, hold off on making final budget recommendations until Wednesday, March 13. By Charter, the town and school budget proposals must be provided to the Legislative Council by March 14.
Focus on how the town would handle and pay for school security began during public comment, with a call from current or former parents of Frasier Woods School students for the town to help their school provide security measures equal to what was being proposed for local public schools.
A few members of the public also specifically called for specially trained school resource officers (SROs) to be deployed in local schools, versus armed private security guards. Others defended the districts proposed increase, or asked that the school budget request be sent to voters without any adjustments.
For much of the rest of the evening, discussion ensued among finance officials, Newtown School Security Committee Chairman Jaime Rivera, Superintendent Janet Robinson, Board of Education Chair Debbie Leidlein, Police Chief Michael Kehoe and Police Commission Chairman Paul Mangiafico.
Mr Rivera, who is also Newtown High School’s Assistant Principal, told the finance board his committee was considering every concern they heard from parents, staff, local, state and federal law enforcement and security officials, as well as other community members.
He also said that there was a concern about discussing specifics about pending long and short-term security measures publicly, as to reveal how the district proposes to move forward. Officials did learn that the district was planning to request budgeting a compliment of 21 unarmed security officers, an increase from four who were employed prior to 12/14.
The taxpayer cost for the unarmed security force was fixed at about $21,000 per guard.
Dr Robinson said she is hoping the district will receive grant funds to help underwrite the cost of the expanded security force, although the grant tied to that funding had not been filed yet. The finance board also learned that Dr Robinson acted immediately following 12/14 to add security personnel to the district payroll, and that the school board supported but did not authorize or vote on that action.
Ms Leidlein said the board agreed to suspend part of their own policy regarding related expenditures for added guards.
“We wanted to allow the superintendent to meet those needs in schools as they came up,” Ms Leidlein said.
Mr Rivera said his panel reached the decision on capping the number of guards at 21 based on overlapping schedules and the need to be sure guards were in each school, even during after hours as long as staff and/or students were on the premises.
His committee is also recommending the town hire and train five additional SROs – one for each elementary school and one for the Reed School.
Unarmed Guard Effectiveness
Council Vice Chair Mary Ann Jacob, who was working in the Sandy Hook School Library as the events of 12/14 unfolded, expressed concerns that unarmed guards could not deter or prevent situations like what she had witnessed that day.
“Are we trying to make people feel safe, or create a safer environment?” she asked. “I don’t believe 21 unarmed guards makes us safer. If we had one on 12/14, we’d have 27 dead.”
Mr Rivera responded explaining that these guards would, in a worst case situation, still be able to delay or deter a perpetrator, while using their training to help make students and staff safe and communication tools to hasten armed police response.
After questioning by finance officials, Mr Rivera also detailed the difference between hiring SROs and outside security forces. He said having SROs would be like asking a family member to look after one’s own children, while hiring outside security guards would be more like having a babysitter, adding he meant no respect to babysitters.
Council member Paul Lundquist agreed with Ms Jacob, adding that SROs, who would be integrated into classroom curriculum might not be as effective because they are not sitting at the school entrance during their entire shift.
Dr Robinson referred to Monroe Police officers on duty at the Sandy Hook/Chalk Hill School facility, as examples of an effective law enforcement presence that is not integrated with classroom curriculum. Mr Rivera added that there are other examples of this type of police presence elsewhere in the country.
Mrs Llodra mentioned input that she reviewed from school psychologists that did not support the presence of SROs in Kindergarten through 4th Grade environments.
On questioning from finance board Vice Chair Joe Kearney, Mr Rivera also said there was no current recommendation for funding additional security presence in local private school, although he encouraged private school leaders to have a role in future discussions, and to “consider being part of a bigger plan.”
Both Mrs Llodra and Chief Kehoe told the finance board that the town could move quickly on training and placing local uniformed officers into school positions, and that the patrol force could be temporarily fortified by many retired certified officers who were looking for part-time duty assignments.
Academy Slots Issue
Chief Kehoe said it would be impossible to hire new officer candidates until the state police academy had space in its roster to accept, train and certify them. Mrs Llodra then suggested putting funds in a contingency account so the town could be ready to hire as soon as it was provided academy slots.
Reviewing documentation before her, finance board member Carol Walsh observed that the security proposals on the table could add another $1 million or more to the current school budget request.
“The well is not endless,” she said of the local budget. “I’m concerned that we might be sacrificing educational aspects for (creating) the perception of security.”
Colleague Harrison Waterbury also noted that when grants funding added security or police personnel run out, taxpayers will be left having to pay for their continued presence.
A short time later, Chief Kehoe responded to a question from finance board Chairman John Kortze about the importance of having a locally trained, armed officer in the schools. The chief said it was very important, adding that armed private guards would not provide the potentially life saving level of quality service his officers could deliver.
Mrs Llodra then reviewed several proposals for adding trained town officers to the schools, and the chief agreed that he would support an option to hire and train four new officers.
Before adjourning the meeting, Mr Waterbury strongly advised district and safety committee members to return to the board March 11 with specifics on added security costs. Mr Kortze said at the onset of the meeting, and reiterated later that it is important for residents to understand his board is committed to understanding the security needs, although the timing of the discussion is challenging because of Charter mandated timelines to move budget proposals toward a late April referendum.
“Once we see a map of what the district is trying to do, and what is left to pay for after any grants are awarded for both operational staff and capital security items, we can determine the options to pay for them,” he said, adding there are avenues to utilize the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and special appropriations or other means to help accomplish school security and safety goals.
“We’re not public safety people, but it’s important to hear what everyone has to say…and there’s a lot of them,” Mr Kortze observed.