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UPDATE: Sheriff’s office to implement SROs at elementary schools

Originally published: Feb. 19, 2013
Last modified: Feb. 20, 2013

Jesse Campbell

The vote on which law enforcement agency should provide school resource officers as protection at the county’s three elementary schools did not pass without some controversy from the Ashe County Board of Commissioners Monday afternoon. 

In a split decision, the board voted 3-2 to allow the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office the right to provide such police protection to local students. 

The vote followed almost two months discussion by county government and education leaders on what steps could be taken to increase security at public schools following the tragedy that struck Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012. 

The ACSO already provides SRO protection at the county’s high school and middle school.  

Following two joint meetings, the ACSO emerged as the frontrunner for the job with backing from both the Ashe County School System and the commissioners. 

After some preliminary research, Ashe Sheriff James Williams said it would cost tax payers 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. 

Late in the conversation, West Jefferson Police Chief Jeff Rose threw his department’s hat in the ring for the board’s consideration. 

Ashe County Commissioner Gary Roark said he urged Rose to come up with a proposal to present to the board. 

Rose said he could offer the SRO protection at a cheaper rate. 

Rose was scheduled to reappear before the board on Monday to officially present his proposal to the board, as the commissioners felt it was only fair considering the attention previously afforded to the sheriff’s office. 

Prior to the vote, confusion amongst the board arose about why Rose’s presentation was stripped from the agenda. 

“This board voted 5-0 to hear Rose’s proposal, but in the meantime somebody got to the town of West Jefferson and stopped him,” alleged Roark. “It outrages me what people will do in this county to keep someone from speaking his piece.”

After an inquiry from the commissioners, County Manager Pat Mitchell said she asked West Jefferson Manager Brantley Price if Rose’s request was on the behalf of the town because it was “unusual for a department head from one political jurisdiction to come to another and make such a request.”

Mitchell said Price, Mayor Dale Baldwin and the board of aldermen were unaware of Rose’s SRO presentation to the board. 

During a Tuesday afternoon phone interview, Price confirmed the earlier conversation with Mitchell. 

He also provided insight on why  a decision to implement West Jefferson officers at the schools would not be in the town’s best interest. 

“My main thing was that town funds could not be used for the schools,” said Price. “The county would have ended up giving us money to do it.”

The county then obliged the wishes of West Jefferson in taking Rose off the agenda, said Mitchell. 

The issue of whether Commissioner William Sands should be excluded from the vote also arose to his previous experience working at the ACSO. 

Roark initially objected to Sands’ vote in the matter and cited a passage written by a professor at the UNC School of Government on how a commissioner may be excused from voting on matter that involves that member’s “own financial interest or official conduct.”

After speaking with the county’s attorney, Mitchell said Sands would not be conflicted in casting his vote. 

This issue drew the ire of Commissioner Gerald Price. 

“If you are not going to excuse yourself then we need to quit taking ethics,” Price said to Sands. 

Price also took issue with Ashe Schools (interim) Superintendent Donnie Johnson. 

Price asked Johnson if he had contacted school or state officials in Raleigh about “getting financial help” in regards to the school safety issue. 

Johnson said he had not and it was his understanding in speaking with other district superintendents that they were approaching the matter through their county commissioners. 

“This being so urgent, I thought you would call them or a temporary security company in the interim while we were making a decision,” said Price. 

According to Price’s figures, the newly implemented SROs would cost the county $5 million for years one – 10. 

Price then referred to the financial burden already placed on the county’s elderly population or those struggling to make ends meet. 

“There is not a price you can put on security of students,” responded Johnson. 

Following the vote, the commissioners instructed the school system to begin conversations with the ACSO on how the arrangement of providing SROs at Blue Ridge, Westwood and Mountain View elementary schools would play out. 

For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.