Hamilton County school board commits $500,000 to school resource officers

Hamilton County school board commits $500,000 to school resource officers

April 19th, 2018 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Johnson speaks during a March 22, 2018, Hamilton County school board meeting.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

This story was updated April 19, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.

The Hamilton County Board of Education approved a proposed budget Thursday night that allocates a half million dollars to school resource officers.

Though Superintendent Bryan Johnson said it was not attributed to pressure from Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, the sheriff had made it clear earlier this week that he was going to apply pressure to other entities to help fund SROs for the county's schools, which are now almost completely funded through the sheriff's office.

School board highlights

Other highlights from Thursday’s school board meeting:

  • After a tense debate, the board voted to enter into a contract with Erlanger Health Systems for a county-wide athletic trainer program. Several school board members expressed apprehension due to existing relationships some schools have with trainers provided by CHI Memorial, Benchmark Physical Therapy and the Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopaedics.
  • The board approved a memorandum of understanding to establish a Project SEARCH program at BlueCross BlueShield which will provide training and work-based experiences for students with disabilities as they transition out of the school system.
  • The board voted on a new contract with its longtime attorney Scott Bennett, who recently formed his own practice, and proposed a contract that consists of a $20,000 monthly retainer, rather than the hourly rate that district was billed by previously.
  • Board members and Superintendent Bryan Johnson acknowledge the frustration students and teachers have experienced this week with TNReady testing and encouraged them to continue to do their best on the assessments, even though the state passed legislation Thursday night that would ensure the tests results will not count as an accountability measure this year.

Board member Joe Smith, of District 3, agreed with the sheriff that surrounding municipalities should contribute to ensuring schools are safe.

"We are leading the charge," Smith said. "I hope this way, other municipalities will see that they should be helping fund this."

Currently, 29 of the district's 79 schools have school resource officers, who oftentimes serve as the first line of defense when an emergency situation happens on a campus.

Since the shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 dead in February, public dialogue has focused on ways to keep schools safe. As arguments turn to gun control versus arming teachers, the district and county continue to emphasize that SROs and social-emotional supports, such as counselors and mental health services, are the best line of defense.

Several board members and Johnson attended a meeting organized by the sheriff Monday that featured representatives from the various surrounding municipalities — Red Bank, Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain, Ooltewah, Soddy- Daisy, and East Ridge — and Johnson even sat on the panel of a town hall held later that afternoon.

Hammond has previously noted that it would take about $4 million to fund an SRO in every school, but that also would not be a quick fix — his office would have to recruit, train and outfit almost 50 more officers, which could take months.

The Chattanooga Police Department does provide two additional school resource officers for Brainerd High School and The Howard School, but it does not fund any other positions.

Board members also attended the governor's school safety summit in Nashville on Tuesday.

"It was interesting to hear from so many municipalities around Tennessee and hear how far along they are in providing so many SROs to their schools and counselors to their schools," District 8 board member David Testerman said of the safety summit. "We have to do more."

Testerman also noted that though there is a lot of public outcry over safety, he wondered how many were willing to actually fund such initiatives.

"Right now, across Tennessee, it seems like there's public outcry, public opinion to address this ... it would be nice to see the state put out a referendum that every citizen could vote up or down if they're willing to fund SROs in every school," he added.

Board chairman Steve Highlander, of District 9, noted that he was thankful for the funding the district was committing to SROs — something historically the district has not done.

"I appreciate Dr. Johnson and his staff doing everything they can to ensure the safety of our children, that has to be one of our top priorities," he said.

Many of Johnson's additions to the budget come from increased projected revenue from sales tax and property tax growth, as well as savings thanks to early retirement incentives the board approved in February.

The 2 percent teacher pay raise that was a point of contention at last week's school board work session also received approval, as did funds allotted to hire more counselors, art teachers, English as a second language teachers and to provide a laptop for each child in the district's middle schools.

Johnson will present the $385 million budget to the county commission in a workshop on May 8. This will be the first time the superintendent has presented a budget to the county for approval.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.