Lebanon School Board cuts funds for SRO position

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-21-2023 2:53 AM

LEBANON — The School Board has eliminated the city’s school resource officer from the 2024-25 school budget, but board members said they are open to a different type of collaboration with law enforcement.

During an all-day budget workshop on Saturday, the board voted, 6-2, to remove funding for the SRO, who is stationed in the city schools.

Board members have expressed concerns this fall about the presence of an armed police officer who works in school buildings but is not an employee of the school district.

In an email on Monday, board member Wendy Hall, who made the motion on Saturday to remove funding of the position for next school year, said that her intent was to end the current contract with the police department — known as a memorandum of understanding, or MOU — so the parties can consider a different partnership model.

Prior to eliminating the position, the board members had hoped to amend the terms of the MOU, including prohibiting the SRO from carrying a firearm in school buildings or to give the School District more authority over the position. But Superintendent Amy Allen informed the board earlier this fall that the Police Department would not agree to those conditions.

“My vote reflected our inability to find agreement on a different SRO model that worked for our community and the (Police Department) since they considered these two concerns non-negotiable,” Hall stated. “This makes it impossible to move forward with the current SRO model.”

Though the SRO position is funded for the remainder of the school year, the memorandum of understanding between the School District and Police Department is set to expire at the end of February. Board members in the majority said they were willing to extend the current MOU to the end of the school year, but it’s unclear if that will happen.

And the board members said they would consider an alternative partnership with the Police Department in the future — such as a “liaison” position who communicates and collaborates with the school social worker to assist at-risk students or families, but who only comes to the school on an on-call basis.

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During a discussion at a School Board meeting in October, school principals told the board that the school resource officer has been a positive presence in their halls.

“I appreciate that the kids see a friendly face in a uniform,” said Mount Lebanon Elementary School Principal Katie Roach. “Sometimes some of their experiences with people in a uniform have not always been positive. … And the kids always love it when he’s outside at recess or gym class. That’s another positive relationship that kids are building.”

Lebanon Middle School Principal Colleen McIntyre also found the SRO position, currently held by Officer Greg Parthum, to be a benefit.

“He is very good at communicating, educating and collaborating with kids,” said McIntyre. “It’s a positive experience even when they are making poor choices.”

Miranda Collins, the school district’s social worker, said Parthum frequently accompanies her on visits to students’ homes. Collins noted that having an officer who has a rapport with the students and families is important during these visits.

“A big concern I have with getting just any officer is that I don’t know what I am getting,” Collins told the board. “I worry about some of our most vulnerable families who have things happening and about coming in with someone I don’t know and who I don’t know how to work with, that it could go differently.”

“By not having an SRO, my concern is that we are removing a support for our most vulnerable population,” Collins added.

High School Principal Ian Smith said that having a school resource officer who is trained to work with youth and who knows the students and families is preferable when a crisis arises in the school that requires police intervention.

Police Chief Phil Roberts said in a phone interview that he was disappointed by the board’s decision.

Roberts said the Police Department already modified the SRO’s uniform several years ago to a “softer” appearance — khaki-colored cargo pants and polo shirt with the department insignia.

Roberts said that a condition that prevents a police officer from being armed would be negligent and reckless.

“I will never put a law enforcement out on duty without a firearm,” Roberts said, adding that an unarmed officer would also be unable to protect a school in the event of an armed intruder.

Roberts also said that sharing supervision of the SRO position with the School District would create conflicts, as the state statutes and department policies that police officers must follow to perform their duties do not necessarily align with School District policies for its employees.

The current MOU authorizes the School District to annually evaluate the school resource officer. Those evaluations are sent to the Police Department.

Board members who supported eliminating the SRO funding include Hall, Chairwoman Lilian Maughan, Lisa Vallejo Sorensen, Kevin Schutz, Tia Winter and Jessica Saturley-Hall.

Vice Chairwoman Martha DiDomenico and board member Stephen Kantor voted in the minority against the motion.

“I’m uncomfortable eliminating (the position) without knowing what we will be replacing it with,” Kantor explained.

Board Secretary Mary Edes was absent from the meeting.

The School District budgeted $73,000 this school year to fund the SRO position, as well as training.

The board plans to continue its discussion of the budget for next school year at its meeting on Dec. 3.

Once the board approves a budget proposal, city voters will have an opportunity at the budget deliberation in February to amend the dollar amount of the proposal — either an increase or decrease of up to 10%. To pass a budget amendment, the motion must be supported by two-thirds of voters in attendance.

However, voters do not have the authority to direct the School Board how to appropriate additional funds. In addition, the amended budget must still be approved by voters in March.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.