Newport town, school district wrangle over cost of school resource officer

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/17/2022 6:23:29 AM
Modified: 8/17/2022 6:20:02 AM

NEWPORT — Town and school officials are hammering out a deal that should have a school resource officer in place for the first day of school later this month, but the path to an agreement has been acrimonious.

School officials have accused the town of trying to bilk the district unfairly to fund the police department, while the town says police staffing will remain dire until early next year.

“Hopefully we will have an agreement by the end of the week,” Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said late Tuesday. “There has never been an issue about having an SRO in the schools. We just needed to write a new agreement.”

Rieseberg said the town completed a revised agreement that he believes addresses the concerns of the school district and forwarded it to the SAU, though he did not provide specifics on the pay dispute.

The new proposal comes a day after town and school officials argued for more than an hour over the school district’s portion of the cost for the SRO.

The back-and-forth at Monday’s Selectboard meeting ended with the Selectboard voting to “support” having an SRO in place on the first day of school. But still to be decided is a final contract between the town and school and whether the school district will have to pay any additional costs over previous years.

Rieseberg said at the meeting that because the police department is short-staffed heading into the school year, it will have to pay a patrol officer overtime to station an SRO in the schools.

In an email to Interim SAU 43 Superintendent Donna Magoon last week, Rieseberg said the district would have to pay those overtime costs as well as 75% of the fill-in officer’s benefits if it wanted a dedicated SRO.

“We do not have adequate staff and have to backfill our current level of staffing,” Rieseberg said at Monday’s meeting. “Our position is we are in very difficult circumstances.”

In an interview Tuesday, Rieseberg said the department just had an officer finish the academy, leaving the department short two officers out of a total 12 position. But the two vacant positions are patrol officers, of which the department typically has seven.

Shifting a patrolman full-time to SRO would leave the department with only four patrol officers; backfilling with overtime would allow the town to keep five officers on patrol and cover the school. But it would be expensive, and Rieseberg apparently has charged the school district with picking up the bill.

Rieseberg did offer hope that the department’s staffing problems are temporary. A second officer-in-training at the academy will not be “functional” for the department until February, Rieseberg said. He added the town has identified a couple of strong candidates as provisional officers and are confident they can easily fill the position of an officer who is deploying with the National Guard for a year.

School Board members reacted angrily to Rieseberg’s memo at last Thursday’s School Board meeting.

“Hunter is playing games,” School Board member Tim Beard said. “The SRO … was set before (former police Chief Brent Wilmot) left, and now there is an issue. They are trying to make money off the schools.”

Magoon said the district works extremely hard to ensure the safety of staff and students, and the SRO is another important piece to that.

“I was discouraged this was the proposal we received,” she told the School Board at the meeting.

At Monday’s Selectboard meeting, Magoon said she had met with Wilmot and new interim police Chief Barry Hunter in late July and was told everything was set and the schools would have an SRO on the first day. There was no SRO last year due to a lack of funding. There also was no SRO the previous year because of COVID-19 and remote learning.

“I was told we were good and would have the same SRO in the building we have had for years, and I agreed to that,” Magoon said Tuesday.

Magoon said she later met with Rieseberg and Chief Hunter and was surprised to be told the district would not have an SRO. That was followed by the email stating the district would have to pay overtime costs and 75% of the benefits for officers working while the SRO is in the schools.

“We should not have to pay time and a half. That is all we are saying,” Magoon told the Selectboard. “It is almost as if our hands are being tied.”

School Board Chairwoman Jenna Darling said the board is “desperately” trying to retain staff and keep students safe. If the district has to pay the additional amount for an SRO, she is worried that something will have to be cut.

“This (SRO) is really important,” she said. “We are willing to pay but need to negotiate.”

Former Police Chief Jim Burroughs, now a member of the Selectboard, questioned why this has become an issue after so many years of the SRO program.

“I don’t know why we are trying to rewrite something that has been so successful for so long,” said Burroughs, who spoke via Zoom.

While Rieseberg said Monday the town is “100% committed to the (SRO) program,” he added the caveat that having an officer in the schools cannot come at the expense of police being able to respond promptly to day-to-day calls that come into the dispatch center.

He also said the town’s position is negotiable, but Magoon said at the meeting she was told there is no negotiating on the pay and benefits requirement.

Toward the end of Monday’s discussion, School Board member Bert Spaulding Sr. urged the Selectboard to vote in support of the SRO on the first day of school and worry about the money later.

“The issue is protection in the schools,” Spaulding said. “These two (Rieseberg and Magoon) need to work out their differences.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached a

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