Bronson administration pushes district to pay school resource officers after withdrawing city funding

After the city forced the hand of the school district by pulling more than $2.3 million in funding for the program, starting next school year, school resource officers will likely be paid with district funds to the first time in years.

For several years prior, the city had fully funded the more than $3 million program each year, integrating police officers into schools as a resource and law enforcement presence. But starting in July, as part of a change initiated by Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, the city is only paying 25% of the program unless changes are made to the city budget.

Despite seemingly widespread support for the program from the school board, district and many Assembly members, ahead of a school board meeting on Tuesday, some officials began circulating rumors that the board was considering not fund the program.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Assemblyman Jamie Allard wrote that “rumor has it that tonight some school members are going to vote to disband ORS.” A senior school district official sent an email asking principals to pressure the board to keep it.

The email warned that board members are likely to replace the school resource officer program with mental health professionals. This motion did not materialize on Tuesday and the school board president and other members say they had not discussed such a plan.

In an unusual scene at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Bronson showed up to testify on behalf of school resource officers, inferring that the board was about to consider not funding the program. He was joined by City Manager Amy Demboski, Police Chief Michael Kerle, Allard and two school resource officers seated in the front rows.

“History will not treat us well as public servants if we cancel funding for this program,” Bronson told the school board.

“If we cancel funding for this program, something is going to happen, it will eventually happen. We had close calls that were avoided by school resource officers,” the mayor said.

When pressed by a Daily News reporter after speaking at the meeting, Bronson would not say specifically what led him to believe the board was considering such a move. He said he heard it from “an excellent source”.

In an interview, school board president Margo Bellamy said she was surprised by the concern over the replacement of ORS by mental health professionals, as implied in the district’s email. school.

“As Chairman of the Board, I have not participated in these discussions. We haven’t had those discussions. We have our discussions publicly, not behind the scenes,” Bellamy said.

Member Pat Higgins later moved a motion to remove per-post funding from the SRO program. The motion was not seconded and failed.

Higgins said his motion would not have cut the program. He is said to have set aside the money in a reserve account which could be used to fund officers in July, at the start of the new budget if needed. In the meantime, the district could wait and see if the Assembly finds more funding from the city, he said.

“No one wants to say no to ORS; they have been a very important resource in the schools,” Higgins said.

“I was just trying to send a message,” Higgins said. Setting the money aside rather than earmarking it for the program would give the city time to “switch to action” and leave the money available for other uses if the city pays, he said. declared.

The district will have to make sacrifices in other areas “if we’re going to have to pay for this from now on,” he said.

The board ultimately passed its budget on a 6-1 vote, which included a provision to fund three-quarters of the school resource officer program for the next school year. Throughout the night, several school board members and district officials spoke out in favor of the school resource officer program.

The board also approved a $5 million amendment to use remaining emergency grant funds for student mental health support. This was not a substitute for funding school resource officers.

Mayor calls school district paying for ORS ‘more equitable’

Since 2015, the city, not the school district, has funded the School Resource Officer program, a partnership between the district and the Anchorage Police Department.

In his city budget proposal last fall, Bronson cut city funding for the program, proposing that the district reimburse 75% of program costs to the city, shifting about $2.3 million in costs. to the district.

In an interview at the school board meeting, Bronson said his administration had requested that the district essentially pay for ORS during the school year, while the city pays during the summer months, which he says, is “more equitable”.

Because the school district and the city operate on different budget cycles, the mayor’s proposal to cut funding starting in January would have left a funding shortfall of several months this school year.

The Anchorage Assembly in November voted to restore $1.28 million in city funding for the program — enough to get through the end of this school year — when it approved the city’s 2022 budget. Bronson later vetoed that funding, but the Assembly overruled Bronson with a priority veto vote.

“Not once, but twice, (the mayor) tried to suspend this program and the Assembly reinstated it,” said Forrest Dunbar, Assemblyman and Co-Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee.

In a social media post last fall, Bronson denied trying to cut it, saying “at no point was there a proposal to cut the SRO program,” but rather a change in who pays.

District official’s email sparks anxiety over ORS

The email to principals sounding the alarm about the future of the school resource officer program was sent by the school district’s senior director of secondary education, Kersten Johnson-Struempler

She said board members were “likely to bring a motion on the 22nd to replace the funding currently proposed in the DEA budget for ORS in our schools with mental health professionals.”

Her email encouraged district staff to contact council members, write letters or testify at the meeting.

Bellamy, the school board president, said she saw a copy of the email and that it’s not uncommon for district employees to advocate with the board for certain programs and funding.

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But Bellamy said Johnson-Struempler’s assertion that the board was considering a motion as described in the email was not something the board discussed or planned. Some board members had one-on-one discussions with directors, so it’s possible the idea was brought up or discussed at the time, she said.

In an interview Thursday, school district chief operating officer Tom Roth said Johnson-Struempler’s letter was not sent based on a directive from a superior and that she did. had sent on his own initiative.

It is not normal for senior administrators to ask principals or other teachers to lobby or testify on budgetary or other issues, he said.

Roth said it was understandable that she sent the email, as managers across the district have already voiced their support for the program, with many considering it invaluable, and it appeared to be at risk.

Roth said he interpreted the letter as a way to inform principals and vice-principals of the discussion since they had already expressed support for the program.

At Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, Bronson said in response to a question about who was trying to defund the program he had heard “from an excellent source” that it came “from a few of the board members of administration and some members of the Assembly”.

The mayor declined to give details at the time. A spokesperson for the mayor later said Johnson-Struempler was not his source of information and declined to say why the mayor had come to believe the school board would try to scrap the program.

[Watch Bronson’s testimony below:]

Future SRO funding is uncertain

After the budget vote, the board informally asked Superintendent Deena Bishop to come up with a list of items the city could fund for the school district if the municipality provided additional funds during its budget review process for the school district. first quarter, since the district covered things like the school resource officer program.

“If the municipality finds itself with a surplus or some wiggle room in its first quarter budget review process, we hope we can have another conversation to see if there is a way to give resources back to our children. “said Carl, a member of the school board. Jacobs after the meeting.

Funding for the school resource officer program will “certainly be a topic of conversation” during the Assembly’s budget review process, which begins in April, Dunbar said. The Assembly should also revisit the issue when the city sets its 2023 budget this fall, he said.

Reducing money from the city budget for officers and transferring it to the district means the money is “straight out of the classrooms,” Dunbar said.

Bellamy said the district was blindsided by the mayor’s proposal last fall, and a flurry of discussions with the Assembly and city administration ensued to find a way forward for this program.

“I was really concerned about this cost change,” she said, adding that she was grateful that the Assembly City’s budget change filled the sudden funding shortfall for this school year.

“We are in the business of educating children. Education is our business. Public safety is really the responsibility of the Assembly. It’s the muni’s responsibility,” Bellamy said.

An influx of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funds is the only reason the district has been able to balance its budget this year, she said. The district has long benefited from the partnership with the police force, but now, when it will soon face a shortfall of $40-67 million in the upcoming budget season, it must start paying for the SRO program, she said.

Without this year’s relief funds, “it would be impossible for us to maintain this service,” Bellamy said.

“And so, as valuable as it is, we are going to have to choose. And if not this year, next year. I think the superintendent was absolutely right when she said, “You know, we live on credit. ”

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