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Lebanon school board approves budget, debates need for police officer on campus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2020 10:28:41 PM
Modified: 11/21/2020 10:28:28 PM

School board members approved a 3.95% increase in the district’s operating budget during a four-hour work session Saturday that included discussions on raising employee salaries and concerns over the role of the school resource officer.

Board members voted during the meeting, 7-2, to approve the $45.9 million general fund budget, a roughly $1.7 million increase for 2021-22. If approved by voters in March, the spending plan would result in an estimated 86-cent increase in the school tax rate per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value, or $215 for the owner of a $250,000 home.

Board members Richard Milius and Martha DiDomenico were the only members to vote against the number.

Ahead of the vote, Milius worried that the board was agreeing to pay for things it didn’t immediately need, like leasing five new school buses at $25,000 per year per bus, or facilities improvement projects that could be deferred another year. The total cost of facility improvements for the four schools in the district is budgeted at $232,800.

“To just rubber-stamp this budget is not a responsible action on the part of the school board,” he said. “I think the interest of the school district needs to be balanced against the interest of the taxpayer.”

But others, including board member Kristin O’Rourke, argued that putting off funds for things like repairs “creates further issues in the long term.”

“Deferring further is not saving money, it’s just pushing costs down the road and maybe increasing them,” she said.

Apart from the specifics of the budget, board members spent a lengthy stretch of the work session discussing the role of the school resource officer, a, armed police officer who patrols the schools. The district contracts with the Lebanon Police Department, and they split the $120,000 cost of the SRO down the middle.

The position has come under fire recently and on Friday, a handful of students walked out of Lebanon High School to protest the officer’s presence, partly prompting the board’s discussion.

In a public comment session at the start of Saturday’s meeting, which was both in-person for board members and virtual for many listeners, several Lebanon residents called in to voice frustration about the officer and to support the students who protested.

“We can’t create an environment that’s safe for everyone when relying on an institution — policing — that’s based in violence,” Lebanon resident Sarah Wraight said during the public comment session.

She added that having officers at schools disproportionately harms students of color.

“These students would be much better served by getting the social and emotional growth they need,” said Lebanon resident Rendi Rogers, who also called in for the public session.

But Hanover Street School Principal Jack Finley, who spoke in person at the meeting, said that school resource officers handle a lot of safety issues behind the scenes.

“I cannot overemphasize the amount of aid and assistance that our school resource officer has (provided),” Finley said, suggesting that the district continue contracting for the officer but still find a way to address the issues raised by students and other residents.

Some board members, including Chairwoman Wendy Hall, questioned whether a social worker stationed at the school, or a police officer who’s not armed or uniformed, would be better options. Board members did not make a decision on the issue at the meeting, but Superintendent Joanne Roberts suggested the board revisit the issue before the beginning of next school year.

Along with the resource officer, board members spent time Saturday morning addressing salary raises for some nonunion employees.

They voted to approve a 3% increase for salaried employees who receive overtime and 2% for those who don’t, as well as a 75-cent-per-hour increase for non-union hourly employees and bus drivers, helping to bring the total cost of salaries and wages to $22.42 million.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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