Commissioners prepare for final decision on school safety
Last modified: Feb. 7
Following a proposal from the West Jefferson Police Department, the Ashe County Commissioners have delayed a decision on which authority agency should provide security for the county’s three elementary schools.
The Ashe County Sheriff’s Office initially emerged as the front runner to employ an on-campus school resource officer for each school. But West Jefferson Police Chief Jeff Rose has since thrown his department’s hat in the ring for consideration.
Currently, the ACSO provides an SRO each for the high school and middle school.
These two officers are also 10-month contracted school employees.
Compensatory time is given to the officers by the school system to cover athletic events and other extracurricular activities.
The discussion for additional officers came in response to the Newton, Conn. school shooting in December 2012.
During Monday’s work session at the Ashe County Courthouse, the Ashe School System unveiled its vision on how the security for the elementary schools should be handled.
This meeting followed an earlier discussion between both boards and the sheriff’s office on examining deterrents for potential assailants and security for children.
Superintendent Donnie Johnson indicated the Ashe County Board of Education would like to have three additional SROs to be available every school day at Westwood, Blue Ridge and Mountain View elementary schools.
When school is not in session, like during holidays and the summer vacation, these officers would revert back to road duties or other assignments issued by the ACSO.
If granted, the BOE would also request that funding for the new officers would not supplant any other funds currently earmarked for the school system, said Johnson.
The board made this stipulation so the schools would not shoulder the entire blame for increasing the county’s budget because the funds would not fulfill just the needs of the school system.
After some preliminary research, Ashe Sheriff James Williams said it would cost taxpayers approximately $85,000 to $100,000 to fund each additional SRO for initial startup costs.
This cost would include the officer’s vehicle, equipment, salary, benefits and training.
Williams said the recurring costs of each officer after startup costs would be significantly lower – around $15,000 a year per officer.
School board member Lee Beckworth has presented a different proposal on the SRO situation that he believes would save the county more money than Williams’ original idea.
Instead of hiring three new officers, Beckworth recommended hiring two officers and transition a current officer to the status of an SRO.
He also proposed the officers drive to the school in personal vehicles like staff members do instead of assigning a patrol car to each SRO that would be parked at the school.
“I understand what Beckworth is saying,” said Williams. “But from my standpoint, I sorely need the extra manpower during the summer months. Anything extra I get in that vein will be a benefit to the sheriff’s office and people of Ashe County.”
Williams also explained the need for a police car in each school’s parking lot, as it could act as a deterrent for someone who might be contemplating entering the school with malicious intentions.
Williams also said denying each new officer a car could have serious ramifications for his current pool of vehicles.
Each patrol officer, Williams said, works a 12-hour shift and abides by a four-day on, four-day off schedule.
During one shift alone, a patrol car sees an average of 200 miles.
If the new SROs are not assigned new vehicles, this means the current pool of patrol cars will see significantly more road time thus reducing the amount of time the cars remain in rotation.
“It all costs money in the end, one way or another,” said Williams.
During the meeting, Commissioner Judy Poe and Williams concurred the additional officers would also help “build up” the sheriff’s department while also protecting school children.
Although the school system has explored other options in increasing security at the schools, including looking at the possibility of a buzzed-in system, Johnson said the SRO option is still its first choice.
Johnson also said he was not in favor of supporting any type of legislation that would allow school staff members the ability to arm themselves in order to protect students.
Following two work sessions to discuss the issues, the commissioners seem set to allow the ACSO the rights to provide security at the elementary schools.
That was until Rose entered the frame with a similar proposal that would instead employ his officers.
Since Rose was not afforded the same amount of floor time during the work sessions to voice his idea, the commissioners voted 4-1 to allow Rose to do so in another meeting before making a final vote.
The commissioners will reconvene 3:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 18, on the third floor of the courthouse to allow Rose to make his formal presentation.