Communication at issue

Resource officer matter one example of lack of dialogue
Dec. 06, 2012 @ 05:01 AM

When the Lee County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to take oversight of school resource officers away from Lee County Schools and put it under the control of the Lee County Sheriff's department, it showed a difference of opinion between the county's government and its public schools.

The call to make the change concerning resource officers — the men and women who patrol local campuses, making sure students, staff and visitors are safe — was met with criticism from Democrat commissioners at the board's meeting. Both they and the school district's central office cited a lack of communication with schools.

"I was a little surprised — I had not heard anything about that beforehand," said Jeff Moss, superintendent of Lee County Schools, explaining Wednesday that he didn't know of anyone from the county contacting any school employees or Lee County Board of Education members before voting.

Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter couldn't be reached for comment about the change, but Moss said he has worked in two other districts where the Sheriff's Office controls the student resource officers — the majority of North Carolina school districts operate under that system — and he said he actually prefers the current setup in Lee County, but was never asked for his opinion.

"You're more efficient and work better if you control the people on your campus," he said.

The resolution, which was one of eight agenda items submitted by Commissioner Jim Womack for the first meeting in which the Republican Party had a clear majority, passed 4-3 along party lines and will now be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

Womack said he didn't officially approach any school officials about the resolution, but that he did speak privately to at least one school board member before Monday's meeting. He declined to say to whom he spoke, but he did say if Moss or any other school officials desire more communication in the future, they can always come to commissioners meetings.

"We have board meetings twice a month, and it's a rare occasion when a school board member or Dr. Moss shows up," he said, adding that he thought Charlie Parks, the recently elected chairman of the county commission, attends school board meetings but that he wasn't sure.

According to school board meeting minutes, Parks is the only county official to have attended any school board meeting since at least the end of the 2010-11 school year. In the 2011-12 school year, records show Parks attended two of the board's 14 open meetings. In the 2012-13 school year, he has reportedly attended one of the four meetings for which records are available.

Parks said his attendance fell off after the 2010-11 school year, when he attended regularly, because the schools stopped notifying him of when meetings took place. He did say, however, that he plans to start attending more often.

Parks, who voted for the SRO change and said he supports taking non-education tasks away from the schools in general, said he sees no problem with the amount of communication between his board and the schools.

"There's plenty of communication that goes on, it's just that it's not always productive," he said. "Whenever a group is used to doing whatever they want to, then get some people saying, 'Wait a minute, you can't just spend money however you want,' they tend to clamp up a little."

The county doesn't keep attendance records other than for the commissioners, so it's unclear which school board members have attended those meetings and when. The county does keep a record of public comments, however, which show Moss speaking this summer but not since.

Board of Education Chairman Lynn Smith said none of the school board members reported talking with Womack or any other commissioners before the vote, and that he wasn't consulted about it — or most other education-related votes — either.

The boards could be headed for future clashes, as Womack is a proponent of enforcing changes explored in the recent Evergreen Audit Report, which generated controversy by suggesting schools outsource custodians, among other cost-saving approaches. Moss said he wouldn't be surprised by such moves, but that he thinks they would be mistakes.

However, he said he hasn't had any conversations with the county commissioners about that.

"I don't want to try to interpret their thoughts," he said. "I've looked at every possible thing that could be outsourced, and there is not a cost savings to outsourcing transportation or cafeteria services. The only way you can save money from outsourcing custodial services is to cut their salaries, and if you read the Evergreen report, there is language that says if savings can only be found by a reduction in salary, it shouldn't be outsourced."

But Womack said the moves aren't entirely about savings, but rather are about streamlining.

"Maybe if we get our principals and teachers to stop worrying about law enforcement, they can finally start focusing more on educating our kids," he said of the most recent resolution.

In that resolution, Womack wrote that the Sheriff's Office would receive $450,000 to pay for salary and benefits when the officers switch over. Moss, in turn. said he had no idea where that number came from and that it's significantly larger than the actual funding amount. The district employs six officers and one supervisor.

Womack said Wednesday the number was simply an estimate because he had a hard time reading the school budget.

"Obviously, this was an approximation based on what we were interpreting from their budget, and it's always difficult to go through the (school) budget and find separate line items," he said.

At the end of Monday's commissioners' meeting, longtime Commissioner Robert Reives, a Democrat, took the opposition to task by pointing out yet another lack of communication — between the county, which released the agenda one business day before the vote, and the student resource officers themselves.

"I only hope that you will be more considerate in the future by allowing other people, who will be impacted by some of the decisions that are made here, to have the opportunity to be responsive to what you are proposing," he said.

On Wednesday, Moss said he wants better communication with the county, an effort he says goes both ways.

"I'm hopeful there will be conversation or dialogue before either group would go public with something that concerns the other group in the future," he said.

Womack, however, said he wasn't interested in having official "board-to-board" discussions because if the schools want dialogue, officials simply need to dig deeper into their own ranks.

"We don't do anything in the Board of Commissioners without some discussion with one or more members of the Board of Education, so if (Moss) hadn't heard of this, he has internal communication problems," Womack said.