(The following is a letter sent to Charlotte's City Council from Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board Member Trent Merchant)
To my friends on the City Council,
I am concerned about proposals by City Manager Curt Walton and Police Chief Rodney Monroe to eliminate funding for crossing guards and to double the rate that we pay CMPD for School Resource Officers. Based on a couple of conversations that I have had with individual council members, it seems clear that you did not have input from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools when considering the proposals in question. Therefore I hope that my letter will serve to shine some additional light on these matters, and may open the door to further discussions. I write to you voicing my own questions and opinions, not the collective views of our board, though many may share similar concerns.
Crossing Guards - It is my understanding that CMPD provided crossing guards at certain crosswalks near schools for many, many years. In an effort to reduce liability, CMPD contracted those services out for the current school year in a bid that came in under budget projections. Now we learn that beginning with the 2011-2012 school year, CMS will be asked to pay for those services based on the justification that they serve CMS students. What that logic fails to consider is:
- The crosswalks are not on CMS property. The roads and sidewalks are not ours.
- CMS only has crosswalks where the City tells us that we can have them – because it is a larger human traffic control issue, not simply a school issue.
- Motorists bear the benefit of crossing services as well.
In short, I urge you to reconsider the crossing guard issue as a larger public safety service that is a benefit to the general public – students, their parents, and the motorists who encounter those crossings on a regular basis. To place the burden exclusively on CMS is a rationalization at best; and a shirking of responsibility at worst.
School Resource Officers - I would like to provide some relevant background that you may or may not have regarding resource officers.
- From 1970-2007, law enforcement officers, known as CMS Security, served the district and were certified through the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.
- In the early 1980's the emphasis of the department shifted from protecting school property to protecting students, staff, and visitors.
- In 2007, Sheriff Jim Pendergraph notified CMS Security that his department would no longer provide certification, and that we would need to seek alternative certification in order to maintain sworn officers.
- The leadership of CMS Security , consisting of recently retired CMPD officers, approached CMPD Chief Darryl Stephens and reached a short-term agreement for CMPD to certify our officers.
- After much research and discussion, CMS decided to pursue the formation of its own police department for certification purposes. With the understanding that CMS would provide limited police services to the school district, CMS and all of Mecklenburg County's Police Chiefs signed an MOU detailing various areas of responsibility.
- The Board of Education made certification our top legislative priority in 2009. Then-Chair Molly Griffin and I traveled to Raleigh to meet with our legislative delegation to push for our own police department and to address any concerns. When several legislators expressed concerns about scope creep, we re-iterated that certification was a technical issue, that we would only be maintaining our current level of service in partnership with other police agencies, and we pointed to the MOU as proof of that commitment. Chief Rodney Monroe was in the room that morning, and he rose and spoke to express his understanding and full support.
Our intent was never to form the second largest police force in the county. Had that been the case, our own delegation likely would not have supported us.
At the same time, we never imagined that the alternative to forming our own large force would be to bear an outrageous financial burden from CMPD. SROs are in CMS middle and high schools for 180 days a year. Currently CMS pays for 50% of 80% of the cost of an SRO, with the logic that they officers are in schools for about 80% of the year, and for the other 20% of the year, that officer is available as needed to CMPD. Should CMS stay with CMPD, we will pay double what we pay now for police officers by 2013 – ie a full 80% of the cost of an officer.
While Chief Monroe may rationalize that 80% is a fair price since 80% of that officer's time is spent in a CMS school, I urge you to consider:
- The value of relationship – the same officer sees the same students every school day and is able to exert a positive, preventive influence.
- The value of information – whatever happens in school is easily relayed to officers on the street who may deal with those same students in their neighborhood later that evening.
- The value of being there – What would it cost the City of Charlotte if we had no SROs, and instead called 911 every time there was a disturbance in a school?
I hope that at least several of you will ask to re-visit these issues. All local elected bodies have their own issues, but we need to foster collaboration whenever and wherever possible. None of the towns are changing their agreements with us...
As a school board member, I would like to better understand your original exit strategy for using one-time federal stimulus dollars to fund ongoing operations – namely police officers – when other local government agencies could not find a way to make that type of arrangement work. Several of you spoke about having a contingency fund in the Spring, but if memory serves, that money went instead to about $6+ million in raises.
As a private citizen, I believe that I am joined by many others in wanting to understand where fiscal responsibility intersects with value for my tax dollar and what we value as a community. It is one thing to make the numbers balance – and I thank you for your diligence in doing a good job in that regard. But please help me understand how you justified giving everyone raises when you knew that you faced a funding cliff, and how it is then OK to kick CMS over that cliff. Please help me understand how, with a mayor who insists that he is serious about education, and his own party controlling council, your city manager is able to tell our Superintendent to his face that the City is getting out of any business that has to do with schools.
At the end of the day, the City Manager is within his right to use one time money to fund salaries, to give raises to everyone on payroll, to ask for a raise for himself, and to help pay for all of that by adding to the financial burden of another government agency that has no ability to raise its own revenue – and you are within your right to support such a strategy. But being within your right doesn't make it the right thing to do. And unless you reconsider, the students who are the future of our community will pay the price for your lack of vision.