South Charlotte

Salaries for school police face cuts

The future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student resource officers could be in jeopardy, according to Warren Cooksey, District 7 City Council representative.

In May 2010, during the 2011 budget hearing, the Charlotte City Council learned that SRO funding may need to be eliminated to cover the costs of other police spending.

The council decided to keep SRO funding for 2011 but to start cutting costs over the next three fiscal years.

The city and CMS each pay a portion of the officers' salaries during the school year. During the summer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department pays the officers' salaries.

In 2011, the city will pay $2.4 million of the $6.1 million total yearly salaries.

Cooksey says if the budget is approved and city funding is phased out, the city's salary contributions would be $1.64 million in 2012, $64,000 in 2013 and the city would make no contribution in 2014.

Currently there are 50 Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers serving as SROs. Each officer spends 80 percent of their time in middle and high schools and the other 20 percent patrolling the school's surrounding communities during the summer.

Cooksey and several other council members are now reconsidering the decision made in 2010. According to Cooksey, Mayor Anthony Foxx has told the council a 2012-13 budget without SRO funding will be vetoed.

Cooksey said he originally thought that with tighter budgeting, the city should focus on its core functions.

"I confess, I was operating on a theoretical level," said Cooksey. "Just sitting around a table during a budget discussion, it's easy to get caught in the abstract. Last year I did not do the inquiries I needed to do. I've done them now and I want to see us fund those SROs."

Cooksey said he began to change his mind after speaking with Tim Morgan, District 6 school board member who represents many of the schools in Cooksey's district.

"Tim Morgan enlightened me on how vital SROs are in schools," said Cooksey. "The officer, being in the school, gets to know the students better, gets to understand their patterns and can serve to remove the opportunity for something to go wrong."

"These officers know the students and can point out the ones who they might have had trouble with during the school year," said Cooksey. "The SRO can watch over that student over the summer and potentially improve public safety in the community."

Cooksey also said his decision was reinforced after Officer Julio Herrera, SRO for Ardrey Kell High School, was honored during the 32nd annual Police Community Relations Award ceremony May 19.

"The fact that an SRO was awarded this year for community relations says clearly there is value that the community sees in their school resource officers," he said. The City Council "needs to help continue that relationship."

Herrera has been a CMPD officer for 14 years and has been at Ardrey Kell for five years. He said he is not following the current budget issues but isn't worried about the future of his job.

"I could lose my job tomorrow, next week or next year," he said. "I can't control it. My main concern is getting those seniors across the stage and making sure the upcoming freshman get safely on the same path.

"It's up to me to talk directly with the parents if there is an issue, so I help with communication between the school and the families," said Herrera. "I want the students to feel like they can come to me and we can solve their problems together."

Cooksey said while other council members want to continue SRO funding, he is unsure where the money will come from. He said the only proposed solution is to take money from the capital reserve fund, which Cooksey doesn't support.

"It's bad budgeting to use one-time money to fill an ongoing expense," he said. "You can do it but you take a risk. Once you spend it, it's gone. It's just a Band-Aid."

The next City Council meeting is June 1 and the budget will be approved June 13.

Cooksey said the SRO funding is still undecided.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "That's what's most disturbing in this conversation. The loudest voices in the room in favor of continuing to fund the student resource officers aren't offering any concrete funding solutions for how to do it."