Police officer Jim McKnight picks up a cruiser at the station each morning and drives to Springfield High School where he oversees the safety of nearly 1,000 students.
The high school is the only building in the 2,000-student district with a resource officer like McKnight.
When the district’s high school closes in the fall and students in grades seven through 12 move to a new campus, McKnight will have about 400 more students to police, mentor and protect.
“With that many kids in here, we could use another officer,” said McKnight, who has spent the last three years of his 14-year career at the school.
The township’s Police Department is already stretched thin. While the district and the township split his $45,000 salary, neither can afford the time or the money for another officer.
“Right now, the schools don’t have the money to pay for it,” McKnight said, adding nor does the township.
The majority of school resource officers are funded by school districts, so there’s just not enough money to afford one in every building, school administrators say.
These budget constraints come at the same time as parental concern about school safety is at a high thanks to shootings in communities like Chardon and Newtown, Conn.
A recent Ohio School Board Association survey of school board members and superintendents found that about 40 percent felt safety measures at schools are not adequate.
“It would be nice to have a resource officer in every building, but fiscally that is not possible,” said William Stauffer, Springfield superintendent.
Republican Sens. Gayle Manning of North Ridgeville and Randy Gardner of Bowling Green have sponsored legislation designed to address these fiscal and safety concerns. Senate Bill 42 would allow school districts to levy a property tax up to 10 mills to employ resource officers, install cameras or otherwise improve security.
School administrators say a safety levy would likely be better received by taxpayers than an operating levy.
“Something like that would benefit every school district,” Stauffer said. “What would concern me is that if voters passed that kind of levy, would voters then not support operating money?
“Both are very, very important. But everybody’s tax dollars are stretched thin and community members are only able to pay so much.”
Gardner said the legislation is simply an additional tool that districts can use to secure funding for school safety. He added that the measure, which funnels local tax dollars into schools, provides fiscal accountability as well as financial resources.
“It’s basically a kind of protection and a guarantee to the community that the money would be spent specifically on security,” Gardner said.
Another tax burden
Even if schools offset operating funds with new local school levies, some local administrators are wary of further burdening already overtaxed communities.
“It’s unfortunate though that they’re still relying on the property taxes to do all this because [communities] are strapped,” said Barberton Superintendent Patti Cleary.
Barberton has four new or fairly new buildings equipped with external and internal cameras, entrances that serve as mantraps and a resource officer in the middle and high school buildings. The district, like most, has provided training for faculty to deal with active shooters.
Still, the one precaution Cleary would like to see is more resource officers.
She’s not alone.
Akron Public Schools lack resource officers in elementary school buildings.
Like Barberton, Akron has mostly new buildings equipped with state of the art safety measures.
Stauffer, who is awaiting Springfield’s new seventh to 12th grade campus, said safety and security measures at Springfield are “good.”
He’s surprised that 40 percent of his colleagues, who responded to the survey, don’t feel the same way.
Some 25 percent in the survey felt their school buildings do “not have proper safety and security measures in place” and another 14 percent were “unsure” if their security is adequate.
“None of us ever know for sure if our safety precautions will be enough,” said Damon Asbury, OSBA director of legislative services.
But recent tragedies, he acknowledges, have placed emphasis on school safety.
“I certainly think that Sandy Hook and Chardon have led a lot of people to believe that having an armed police officer is the way to go,” Asbury said.
Asbury agrees with his constituents that “it would be nice to have a state grant independent of property taxes” to deal with the lack of resource officers in elementary schools across Ohio.
Some money, Asbury noted, has been set aside in Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal.
The governor’s budget would shift $12 million in the next two years to the Ohio School Facilities Commission, a state program that matches locally generated dollars to build and renovate school buildings. The money would help districts buy things like radio and entrance security systems including heavy-duty doors, security cameras and intercoms.
“From what we can tell, it’s the first time that money has been set aside for school security,” said Rob Nichols, Kasich’s spokesman.
The measure would not fund resource officers.
Pressure on lawmakers
State Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Twp., who is chairman of the Public Safety, Local Government and Veterans Affairs Committee, has heard an earful over the past few weeks about school safety.
LaRose said no state funds have been identified to match local dollars generated from property taxes, but it’s a concept worth exploring.
“It’s something that we ought to be looking at in a world of finite resources,” LaRose said.
The survey also found that three in five districts that responded have no resource officers. Resource officers primarily serve as a visible police force and deterrent, but they also serve as a liaison to the local police department and a mentor to children.
With more than 22,000 students in the Akron district, Superintendent David James said his resource officers have to deal with a number of behavioral issues that require added attention and personnel.
“The problem is in the community. The schools just reflect that,” James said. “That’s really the whole reason for having those resource officers in the building, so they can mentor.”
The majority of Akron elementary schools are new, equipped with cameras, buzzers and keycard entry. But none have resource officers and finding the money to hire them is “just not feasible right now,” James said.
Revere Local Schools have no resource officers.
Hiring one would add a “component to our safety plan as well as someone on our campuses that could be a potential first responder for any incident that occurs. That incident doesn’t mean a tragedy,” Superintendent Randy Boroff said.
Boroff said he believes there is always room to improve safety.
“I think people might not want to admit that there is more that we can do,” Boroff said.
But Boroff is aware that policing schools doesn’t mean limiting access for parents and the community.
“That’s where as educators we are torn,” Boroff said. “We want to be welcoming, but there is a security issue.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.