Schools seek 11 people to deal with security

The superintendent’s proposed $2.6-million budget increase includes some $515,000 for 11 additional security-related personnel as a direct response to the mass shooting in a Newtown elementary school last month.

More security expenses are expected to be announced in the future, but they would not be part of next year’s operating budget.

Some $235,000 would pay for two student resource officers, bringing the total to three for the district, and a cruiser for the officers to move from school to school. Superintendent Deborah Low said last week the new officers would each have cruisers, but that the police chief said one of the cruisers would appear in the police budget.

The student resource officer is not a sentry.

“We have one at the high school, Officer Luis, and his ‘home turf,’ if you will, is the high school and he also travels to the other schools” Ms. Low said.

Officer Fernando Luis also works with the public schools as well as Saint Mary School to develop and train in security protocols, but developing a relationship with students is also seen as an important role of the resource officer.

“Sadly the job has grown,” Ms. Low said. With three officers they can spend more time in each building.

All of the police expenses might wind up in the police budget, but Ms. Low said Monday she didn’t want the expenses to be overlooked.

Because hiring police officers can take months of background checks, tests and interviews, plus six months at the Police Academy followed by a probationary period, it could take a long time before the two additional officers are added if approved in the budget.

Adding eight security guards, at a cost of $215,000, would bring the total to nine in the district, one for each of the schools, except the Alternative High School.

The extra guards were hired immediately after the shooting in Newtown but since they aren’t budgeted into the current budget they represent part of the “budget-to-budget” increase.

Paying for the extra costs this year would require a Board of Finance special appropriation if the school district can’t find savings elsewhere.

“We’ll see if we can cover it this year. I’m not real hopeful about that,” Ms. Low said.

School Board Chairman Austin Drukker said the   spending outside the budget was justified. “In light of what happened in Newtown and the concern of our Ridgefield’s citizens, we felt the need to place security in the schools immediately in order to alleviate any concerns that people might have and most importantly to make our children and their parents, as well as our teachers and staff, feel and be as secure and safe as we could possibly make them,” Mr. Drukker wrote in an email.

“As for these monies being spent outside of the normal budget process, what happened — what occurred last month in Newtown — was outside of the normal process of life and could not have been prepared or planned for. I think that these monies are well spent and I don’t imagine any of my fellow elected officials or the citizens of the town taking issue with any of the immediate decisions made following that horrific tragedy.

“Discussions were had with the first selectman and with the chief of police, who were the individuals who were in the best positions to make sure that decisions made kept our children, staff and faculty safe.

“This is cheap compared to the value of the lives that we hold in our hands each day and who come to us assuming that we will keep them safe and cared for. In retrospect, would we have done the same thing again, absolutely.”

Board of Finance Chairman Dave Ulmer wrote in a Wednesday email to The Press that his board didn’t need to be consulted for the security guard spending, and a special appropriation would likely be unnecessary.

“The BOE [Board of Education] told us last night that they would try to find this year’s money within their budget,” Mr. Ulmer wrote. “We were told the BOE approved (up to) $150K for security purposes at their January 7th meeting. We were not consulted, as this is not really our function. But, if something else happens, i.e. unexpected overruns in other areas such as Special Education, and the BOE could not cover the $150K amount from transfers within their FY13 budget, they would have to ask the BOF [Board of Finance] for a special appropriation. Again, they don’t think they will have to do this; it would take ‘unusual circumstances’ not to be able to find $150K within a $80M budget.”

A final staff addition relating to security is a mental health professional, but Ms. Low is not exactly sure whether that would be a psychologist, counselor, or social worker. The $65,000 price tag is meant to represent a typical salary in that field.

The two potentially overlapping ideas here would be to provide more support for students and families that need it and also to potentially track and identify warning signs.

“How do you possibly identify early warning signs for what tragically can end up going wrong?” Ms. Low said Tuesday. “We don’t know exactly what that would look like.”

Other security improvements

There are a number of other security-related costs discussed Monday that are not part of the operating budget Ms. Low presented but may show up elsewhere.

They are ideas discussed by the security committee formed last month and formalized last week as a response to the shooting, and some of the dollars Ms. Low projected are admittedly “crude” placeholders.

Some items may end up in the capital budget, which is meant to cover longer-term expenses like investments in the facilities, rather than operating expenses.

A cell tower or some device to improve cell service is a wish-list item with a lot of uncertainty at the moment.

“A big thing that we probably have the least amount of control in is the cell tower.”

Poor cell service has been a problem in Ridgebury for years. Recently the first selectman has been reporting cell companies may be nearing a deal with a private land owner to build a tower there, though details have been slim. That route would not cost the town or district anything.

Ms. Low’s presentation listed cell service improvement at $450,000 to $1.1 million.

There is also a “visitor management” background checking system.

“The pricing has come down in the last six seven eight years,” Ms. Low said. That could cost around $25,000.

Physical access systems in the buildings could cost around $200,000.

Other items have no listed cost, just “to be determined,” like “inter-agency communication,” more secure doors, locks and windows.

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