Board examining $12 million shortfall
LAFAYETTE — As the Lafayette Parish School Board enters talks next week on how to close a $12 million budget shortfall, items on the table for possible elimination include the district’s program that places police and security officers on middle and high school campuses.
The school resource officer and safety officer program costs the school system about $1.1 million dollars. The money pays for nearly 30 officers who work with faculty and staff at all high school campuses and nearly every middle school campus to ensure safety.
The program began in the 2006-07 school year on two campuses and was expanded parishwide two years later. Last year, the district added school safety officers, who are noncommissioned officers, to provide additional support on campuses to help with discipline issues.
Superintendent Pat Cooper said recently that he doesn’t want to see the program cut and doubts that it will be, but the program was added to the proposed list of potential cuts for the board’s consideration because of its hefty price tag.
“I would fight very much against cutting the school resource officer program because it’s valuable,” Cooper said. “We actually need more resource officers, not less, but it had to be put on the table as a big-ticket item to make the board aware of how serious this is.”
At a May 10 board retreat, members discussed possibly using a portion of its reserve funds to help cover some of a projected budget shortfall.
The board has about $66 million in a reserve “rainy day” fund. Board policy requires the board to set aside at least three months of operating expenses, or about $61 million.
At the retreat, some board members talked about using the excess of the three-month operating cushion. Board members would not commit to using more than that amount, which would require a change in board policy.
Some policy change suggestions have involved reducing the reserve to 2.5 months or to two months, though the full board rejected that suggestion at a board meeting earlier this year. The policy change will likely be revisited during the board’s workshop on the general fund scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The school system holds contracts with local law enforcement agencies to provide school resource officers. As part of the contract, the school system shares the salary cost for nearly 20 police officers.
Typically, the police agency covers the officers’ benefits and some training expenses, according to Bradley Cruice, the school system’s health and wellness director.
The school system pays the full salary for the seven school safety officers who work in cooperation with school resource officers at some high schools and middle schools, Cruice said.
Scott Police Chief Chad Leger said he’d face some difficult budget decisions in trying to find $70,000 to cover the expense of the two officers who work at Scott Middle and Acadiana High if the program was cut.
“We’d probably have to take a cut somewhere in the department to absorb that because I would really hate to see that program go away. It’s that valuable of a tool,” Leger said. “I know the other resource officers throughout the parish are very needed and it would be a huge step back if the budget was cut and these officers were removed.”
Lafayette police Sgt. Randy Leger is a former school resource officer who now supervises the Police Department’s school resource program, which also provides an officer at Teurlings Catholic High School. He said the officers deter crime on campus and their role is not to enforce school policy but the law.
On campus, Randy Leger said, the officers take on roles as mentor and role models.
At Lafayette Middle, the school resource officer offers a Peacekeeper program in which students are recognized for reporting crimes and showing forgiveness to their classmates. Leger said it’s been a successful program and he’d like to see it expanded to other middle schools in the upcoming school year.
“You’d be surprised how many kids build a rapport and tell the officer things that they’re not willing to tell a teacher or counselor. They become mentors and not the big bad wolf that some portray police officers to be,” Leger said.
Those relationships have led to arrests off-campus as students share information about crimes they know about that occur off-campus, Chad Leger said.
“We go in there and watch the kids relate to the officers,” he said. “They know that we can be friends with this police officer, but if I do wrong, this police officer is going to do his job.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter @Marsha_Sills.