Burrell School Board weighs options on school police | TribLIVE.com
Valley News Dispatch

Burrell School Board weighs options on school police

Mary Ann Thomas
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Burrell School District officials are faced with a difficult choice when it comes to having police officers in their schools.

They can keep the status quo, which includes keeping the district’s long-time school resource officer, a well-known and popular-with-students Lower Burrell officer, or the district could opt to save some money and hire its own police officers like many other districts.

Hiring its own officers, in effect creating its own police force, could be cheaper for the district and could mean two officers in schools daily instead of just one.

In an informal survey, Superintendent Shannon Wagner found a growing number of area districts are opting to hire their own police officers rather than contract with a municipality, like Burrell does. School board members will have to decide if that’s the right course for Burrell during their regular meeting Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

After polling 21 area school districts, Wagner found 16 have at least one police officer in their schools daily. Half of those use School Resource Officers (SRO), who are municipal officers assigned to the schools, and half use School Police Officers (SPO), who are hired directly by the school district.

Currently, Burrell has an SRO, Lower Burrell Det. John Marhefka, a long-time police officer. An advantage with Marhefka is that he is well known among the students, Wagner said.

“He’s not just a man with a gun, he’s very approachable,” she said.

The school district and city split Marhefka’s annual salary.

As Wagner sees more districts hire their own police officers, she said it might be because districts can save money, especially if they opt to hire a retired state trooper or municipal police officer.

In fact, Burrell could hire two retired police officers for about $15,000 more than what it is paying for its SRO, according to Wagner.

Burrell currently spends about $87,700 annually for Marhefka under its contract with Lower Burrell. For a little more than $100,000, the district might be able to secure two retired police officers, according to Wagner.

Having a second officer is appealing, said Wagner.

During the current school year, Burrell’s SRO filed 55 incident reports. Last year, he filed 62 reports, according to Wagner.

Police presence in the district has been boosted by Lower Burrell Police Chief Tim Weitzel, who opened a police office in Bon Air Elementary school. He also sends patrol officers to visit the district’s schools daily. The extra police presence is free of charge to the school district.

“It’s a big decision,” Wagner said of deciding on police coverage.

“The board understands the issues and it will be a matter of what makes more sense safety-wise and still meets our budget demands,” she said.

The board needs to make a decision Tuesday to meet deadlines next month for renewing its police contract with the city and for state grants to help finance the district’s police and security program, according to Wagner.

The meeting will be held Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the High School Board Room, 1021 Puckety Church Rd.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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