Schools’ safety may be assessed in Washington County

Gary B. Gray • Mar 15, 2013 at 9:47 PM

Washington County officials continue to express concern regarding student safety, but they also seem to be getting on the same page about providing additional protection when and where it’s needed and in a fiscally responsible, thoroughly examined and calculated sequence.

About six hours after County Mayor Dan Eldridge suggested to the County Commission’s Budget Committee that a third party assess the safety risks at county schools before implementing 10 additional school resource officers, the Joint Education Committee unanimously voted to do just that.

Director of Schools Ron Dykes said Friday that he is on board.

“I had asked for the proposal in writing,” he said. “It is a comprehensive assessment, and it is my understanding they would bring in an outside agency. Mr. Eldridge explained that it might expose a vulnerable area that had not been addressed in the past. He was also speaking of mechanical risks as well.”

County commissioners could review the proposal as early as Tuesday. If approved, the county would pay an estimated $84,000 for a third-party risk and safety specialist to assess each county school in lieu of hiring an additional 10 SROs at an estimated initial cost of about $1 million. Money to pay the specialist would come from the county’s general fund.

The additional officers would bring the total number to 16, placing an SRO in each county school. The initial cost breaks down to about $98,000 per officer. A little more than $41,000 covers an officer’s annual salary and benefits. The remaining costs are related to a vehicle, weapons, uniforms and other equipment.

There still are varying opinions and unanswered questions as to whether allotting the money to the sheriff’s office would relieve the county from its obligation to pay a share of that money to Johnson City schools. If that were the case, the annual recurring costs could amount to roughly $1.4 million, and the city would not be legally obligated to spend their share on school security, according to County Attorney John Rambo.

Also, there are a handful of bills working through the General Assembly regarding SROs. One would require an SRO at each school, but the state would pick up the tab.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed reinstating a $35 million line item into the coming state budget that applies to school security. Still, the bills are pending and the proposal is just that — a proposal. The possibilities were enough to move Eldridge to tell Budget Committee members Thursday, “We’re just at the beginning of knowing how this thing is going to unfold.”

The resolution asks commissioners to approve broad safety-risk assessments of county school buildings and to support efforts to identify and respond to various identified risks to schoolchildren. However, these actions would be taken only at the behest of the Board of Education.

It also requests that Eldridge provide Dykes with a written proposal detailing the scope of coverage and other details of a third-party risk assessment for safety at the school campuses in Washington County. The resolution also directs the Budget Committee to identify and recommend to the full commission at its April meeting an appropriate source of money within the general fund budget to cover the estimated cost.

“I felt like it was the responsible thing to do, for all parties involved,” said Mark Larkey, county commissioner and Joint Education Committee member.

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