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City, CMS agonize over money for school police

Charlotte City Council members are looking for a way to give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools a break on the cost of paying for school police, saying armed officers provide vital protection for students and faculty.

“My boy is in kindergarten in a CMS school,” councilman Michael Barnes, chairman of the city’s budget committee, said Wednesday. “I don’t want his teacher to have a gun, but I do want and I think every parent wants their kids to be as safe as possible.”

The challenge: The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, which provides the money CMS uses to pay its share of the officers’ salaries, are both pinched for money – partly because correcting errors in the county’s revaluation will reduce revenue from property taxes.

“Everybody’s taking a hit,” said Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, noting that CMS will have a hard time finding an added $800,000 required by a change in the city formula for paying school resource officers.

Those officers, armed with handguns and Tasers, are stationed at all CMS middle and high schools, where they handle crime and safety issues during school and after-school events. Discussion of the need for armed protection has intensified since December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Council shifts responsibility

Traditionally, CMS has split the cost of school officers’ salaries during the school year with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and police forces in the six smaller municipalities – with the cities picking up the full tab and putting officers to other uses in summer. But in 2010, Charlotte City Council voted to shift a bigger share of the cost to CMS, starting with the current budget year.

CMPD has 49 officers and one sergeant assigned to schools. The CMS share of that cost went from $2.4 million last year to $4.5 million this year, and is slated to rise to $5.3 million in 2013-14.

School board member Eric Davis told the council budget committee that CMS will need $15 million in additional county money next year just to cover the cost of enrollment growth, rising costs and opening a new elementary school. Meanwhile, county commissioners are warning there will be little or no money available to bump up the budget. If CMS ends up having to cut spending in the face of growth, “then we are facing layoffs again,” Davis said.

“Having to make a choice between a school resource officer or an algebra teacher, that’s not in your child’s best interest,” Davis said.

Solutions may not be easy

Cannon, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, suggested tapping the city’s “rainy day fund” to avoid passing more costs to CMS, which also faces a cut in federal money. “In the wake of the hurricane that CMS is up against, what’s available?” he asked.

City budget officials said the last time they dipped into the reserve fund was when a real hurricane, Hugo, devastated the city in 1989. Newly hired City Manager Ron Carlee cautioned council members against using that fund or any other one-time source for an ongoing expense.

“It’s more of an operational issue than a one-time fill-the-gap issue,” Carlee said.

The committee made no decisions Wednesday, but asked staff to come back with options at next week’s budget session.

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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