Blairsville-Saltsburg committee favors local police for armed security
A three-member majority of Blairsville-Saltsburg School District's buildings and grounds committee is set to recommend that the school board obtain officers from two local borough police departments to provide armed security at the district's two campuses.
At an April 3 committee meeting, members Anthony Canzano, George Rowley and Rick Harper came to a consensus for recommending that the district pursue agreements with Blairsville and Saltsburg boroughs. Under the proposed agreements, each town's police force would supply an armed officer to provide security at the nearest school campus.
After several months of debate about various options for boosting school security, the committee majority favored use of local police over various other options that have been considered — including paying overtime for off-duty state police troopers or hiring retired troopers or county sheriff's deputies.
Fellow committee member Holly Hall said she preferred waiting to review more information before making a recommendation for the school board's April 17 meeting.
Ed Smith, who also serves on the committee and is the school board president, questioned how local police would compare to state police in the level of training each would bring to the task of school security.
Smith pointed out that the committee's stance was a recommendation only and might not be reflected in the full school board's ultimate decision on the issue.
Saltsburg Police Chief Gary Walker and Blairsville Officer Jill Gaston represented their respective police departments at the committee meeting. Under a proposed agreement with the district, they indicated each of their departments would provide a dedicated officer to guard its designated campus during school days while also maintaining officers on duty to protect the respective boroughs.
Prorated to the number of days in the school year, district Business Manager Eric Kocsis calculated that it should cost Blairsville-Saltsburg $30,500 each in the 2013-14 school year for two local police officers, one each at the Blairsville and Saltsburg campuses. “We are only subcontracting for 180 days,” he noted.
That compares to more than $100,000 per officer for the most costly option, paying overtime for off-duty state troopers.
Ryan Maher of Burrell Township, the station commander of the state police barracks at Kiski Valley, has attended several school board sessions in his off-duty role as a district parent and has repeatedly urged the Blairsville-Saltsburg board to place armed police officers at its schools.
Maher also had advocated for state police officers as the ideal candidates for that school detail, acting as “school resource officers.” But, at last week's committee meeting, he expressed appreciation for the panel's decision in favor of local police. On behalf of his family, he said, “I applaud the committee for taking a huge step.”
Committee members also sought input from other parents who were in attendance and who had voiced opinions about district security measures at previous meetings.
Molly Stiles and Amanda Vresilovic indicated they would welcome either state or borough police providing armed security at district schools. Several parents disapproved of an alternative idea suggested by school board member Holly Gibson — allowing teachers who are licensed to carry firearms and trained to use them to have them at school to protect themselves and their students against a potential armed assailant.
“I think a teacher's job is to teach,” Stiles said. “I'm not comfortable with teachers having guns.”
“If someone is going to be armed, they need to be clearly identified that this is a friendly” so as not to confuse state troopers responding to an incident at a school, Maher said.
School directors Gibson and Mary Whitfield attended the meeting though they don't serve on the committee.
Hall and Mary Whitfield suggested delaying the committee's decision on a recommendation until members had a chance to review a DVD on the school security issue that was provided by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
But Harper and Smith pressed for the committee to reach a decision without further delay. “I'd like to get it to bed,” Harper said of the board's debate on school security options.
“I don't care what that (DVD) says. I think we have enough information and input from people in the community,” Smith said.
When asked what benefit local police could provide for handling school security, Gaston noted the borough departments would each designate a single officer to cover the local school campus every weekday that school is in session.
“This officer would solely be the school officer during the school days,” she said. On a given day, “The priority would be, once the officer is in the school, he wouldn't leave the school.”
Gaston noted the officer would have the opportunity for “rapport-building with the kids. That officer would also get to be familiar with the school. That's a big benefit.”
During summer months, when school is not in session, the officer would be free to help patrol in the borough, she said.
Maher suggested that state police likely would assign a pool of up to six officers to handle SRO shifts at local schools.
Smith, who resides in Blairsville Borough, asked how the town's police force could protect both the local schools and the borough when it has recently had trouble covering some shifts.
Gaston acknowledged the Blairsville department was short-handed, but she said the recent hiring of a chief has bolstered manpower with part-time officers available to fill in where needed.
Walker noted that Saltsburg's police force does not provide 24/7 coverage in that borough. He said he currently has seven part-time officers on the force while he also is considered a part-time employee but works full-time hours.
Responding to questions from the committee, Gaston said the additional duty on the school campus would not need to be included in a new union contract that is being negotiated for the Blairsville police officers.
While officers in the two towns currently lack jurisdiction at their respective school campuses, which are located outside the borough limits, Walker said they can gain arrest powers there through agreements with the school district and the local district judge.
Due to the location of the Saltsburg school campus, just across the borough line, Walker said Saltsburg officers would also provide evening and weekend patrols of the campus at no extra charge if the borough reaches an agreement with the district.
Gaston pointed out Blairsville officers already assist with security at Blairsville High School's home football games since the stadium is located in the borough.
Smith asked about differences in training for borough police officers compared to state troopers.
“If we're going to do this, I want to get the best of the best,” he said. “A state police officer has a lot more training. Is it worth the difference in cost?”
Maher said candidates for state trooper must have at least an associate's degree from an institution of higher learning and complete 6-7 months of training at the state police academy. He said additional training is provided for those who will serve in the role of school resource officer.
The Municipal Police Academy, for officers who would work in a borough department, lasts 22 weeks.
Those officers also could receive additional SRO training. Gaston noted Blairsville Borough has budgeted money specifically for additional officer training.
Ultimately, Gaston asked, “If you're in trouble, do you care what uniform is coming to help you?”
“Law enforcement is law enforcement,” Walker said. “We have our own kids. What we do, it's all the same.”
Walker said he previously worked for a local department that provided SROs. It has been noted that Blairsville's new police chief, Michael Allman, during his previous career in West Virginia, developed several safety programs that were used at local schools. He also is a certified instructor with the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program and launched related outreach programming at three middle schools in West Virginia's Brooke County.
Through a local outreach program, Gaston noted she has been attending lunch with children at Blairsville Elementary School most Thursdays. “It gets the kids familiar if they see (officers) driving around town,” she said. “It lets them approach us.”
Gibson said she liked the fact that local police officers would see the same children both at school and out in the community and would have the opportunity to witness “family dynamics.”
Rowley agreed, noting students might then come to see the SRO as “a person rather than a figurehead.”
When asked about training local officers might have for dealing with special needs students, Gaston said it is not a standard requirement in her department. But she said she has taken advantage of additional training that was available through the Open Door, a local agency that offers counseling services and a crisis hotline.
District superintendent Tammy Whitfield pointed out Blairsville-Saltsburg's current annual cost for a new teacher at the first step of the salary scale — including health insurance and retirement benefits — is $82,500. “I try to balance everything with that number,” she said.
During a brief finance committee meeting, held immediately after the buildings and grounds session, Kocsis indicated the proposed cost of $61,000 for obtaining security services from Blairsville and Saltsburg boroughs in the coming year should be offset by savings the district anticipates in its own employee costs.
It was noted that four teachers and two aides are expected to retire. While those staffers likely would be replaced, the difference in salaries for the new hires would result in savings of between $20,000 and $25,000 per position.
In other staffing matters for the coming year, Kocsis said the district may need to hire an additional first-grade teacher but also may eliminate one special education instructional position and 2-3 personal care assistants.
The latter would continue to be provided by the ARIN Intermediate Unit, but Tammy Whitfield noted BSSD expects to realize some savings by providing its own occupational and physical therapy services rather than obtaining them from ARIN.
Smith stressed that the district still is expecting to hold property taxes at the existing level, as it has for the past several years.
Mary Whitfield suggested board members should tour the Challenger Space Science Center in Wheeling, W.Va., since the board has taken an initial step — pledging $1 per student toward start-up costs — in supporting proposed development of a similar facility in Indiana County. The center is meant to promote science and math skills among students by having them complete simulated space missions.
School board members, however, debated about reimbursing themselves for mileage to drive to the Wheeling center.
Mary Whitfield indicated that shouldn't be an issue since the district has an annual $6,000 line item to cover board training expenses. “We need to see where our money's going,” she said. “We need to get educated.”
But Harper said he would have a problem using district funds for a board member trip when the board voted to stop paying for many student field trips. He noted that he'd opposed that move.
Hall suggested the board revisit that issue and consider reinstating payment for field trips made for educational purposes.
Since the change in district policy, Tammy Whitfield pointed out, “The field trip requests haven't stopped, but the money is now coming from elsewhere” than the district budget.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or email@example.com.