Control of SROs move to sheriff’s department

Aug. 01, 2013 @ 09:46 AM

Against the wishes of the school board, and in spite of declining incident rates on school campuses, control of Lee County Schools’ student resource officers (SRO) has been transferred from the schools to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

Darla Cole, the district’s head SRO, reported to the Lee County Board of Education in a meeting Wednesday night that the number of investigations she and her fellow officers conducted last school year was down more than 20 percent from the year before. Board Chairman Dr. Lynn Smith said that should’ve been all the proof anyone needed that the district can and should handle school safety.

“The system is working, but I guess we’re going to fix it anyway,” he said.

Although the changes were mandated by state law — specifically, by a bill proposed by local Rep. Mike Stone which was pushed through in the final two days of the legislative session after bouncing from committee to committee for months — the school board still had to officially agree to go along.

Although no one seemed to actually be in favor of the change — Smith spent about a minute cajoling someone, anyone into putting the motion on the floor — it eventually passed unanimously, 6-0. Board member Cameron Sharpe was absent.

“I am very heartsick about it,” Tamara Brogan said.

Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter, himself a former SRO with Lee County Schools, said in a 2006 interview with The Herald when he was first campaigning for sheriff that he would never ask for student resource officers to be transferred to his command.

“The Lee County Schools Special Police Agency has only been successful as a result of the good working relationship this agency has had with the students, administration, staff and the Lee County Board of Education,” he said in September, 2006.

Fast forward to present day, and Carter has largely remained silent on the issue. But members of the Lee County Board of Commissioners — especially Commissioner Jim Womack — have repeatedly called for this change, stating that managing a police force is an unnecessary distraction from school officials’ primary goal of educating students.

The school board touched on another sore topic coming out of the General Assembly on Wednesday, the state budget which cuts millions of dollars from Lee County Schools — most of it from funds which were used for salaries and classroom materials.

Supt. Andy Bryan said the state has given the schools “a very difficult year” by slashing more than 50 percent of its funding for instructional materials and more than 75 percent of its funding for textbooks, not to mention eliminating 33.5 teaching positions, one instructional support position and 21 percent of funding for teaching assistants — which, according to the state, comes out to more than $820,000.

“I’ve heard from several teachers and educators from throughout our school district, and they’re obviously disappointed,” Bryan said, adding that all of those he’s talked to have nevertheless pledged to still try their hardest. He added: “I would expect nothing less.”

Linda Smith, a board member who also works as a college professor, said the legislature’s actions have left her feeling conflicted whenever people seek her advice about the profession.

“As a minority educator, a lot of times people will come and ask me about going into the field,” she said. “Right now, I have nothing to encourage them.”

Board Vice Chairman Mark Akinosho said the budget was a morale killer.

“As a proud parent, I say we need those kinds of teachers who taught my children,” said Akinosho, whose children have attended some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

The board then unanimously approved a resolution against the budget — which, since the budget already passed, was mainly symbolic — stating that the state’s funding for education hurts students and educators alike, and that it “hinders the Pre-K-12 preparation of students for a successful post-secondary transition into the workforce.”

Board members also discussed how to proceed with nominating new trustees for Central Carolina Community College. The four trustees it had appointed were forced off by another law Stone originally proposed, but they have filed suit seeking their positions back. If those four lose in court, though, the school board will appoint two new trustees, and the Chatham and Harnett county school boards will each appoint one trustee.

John Bonardi made a motion to go ahead and appoint former trustees Ophelia Livingston and Bill Tatum, also a former school board member, to the college’s board of trustees since they are both experienced. But it failed 4-2, with only he and Linda Smith in support, with the rest of the board saying they should receive and review applications instead of making an immediate decision.

If the lawsuit fails, the three school boards will have until Sept. 10 to make their appointments, otherwise Gov. Pat McCrory’s office gets to do so.