Hamilton County sheriff’s office to transfer $592,000 for school security officers

Staff photo by Tim Barber School Resource Officer P. Soyster walks the perimeter outside Central High School Wednesday in Harrison. Soyster came onboard in October of 2017. "This will be my first full year at the school," Soyster said. "I have a business administration degree, but this is what I like to do," he said.

This story was updated at 5:18 p.m. with more information.


Hamilton County Schools will receive $591,797 from the Sheriff's Office to hire eight additional full-time school security officers.

The sheriff's fiscal year 2023 operating budget includes funding for 32 school resource officers, but the sheriff has been unable to fill all those slots.

At the recommendation of the Sheriff's Office, county commissioners approved a budget amendment Wednesday transferring funds for salaries and benefits associated with eight vacant full-time school resource officer positions to Hamilton County Schools, enabling the district to hire the eight additional security officers.

The plan comes as a result of conversations between Hamilton County Sheriff-elect Austin Garrett and Superintendent Justin Robertson. Garrett will be sworn in Sept. 1 and succeeds outgoing Sheriff Jim Hammond.

According to the resolution commissioners approved Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office will evaluate conditions at the end of the current fiscal year to determine if it can fill those school resource officer positions in fiscal year 2024.

The almost $592,000 allotment from the Sheriff's Office will build on a combined $1.95 million allocated by the County Commission and school board earlier this summer, which increased the number of school security officers by 28.

Hamilton County Schools Chief Operating Officer Robert Sharpe said the action commissioners took Wednesday will ensure there's an officer in every county school.

"That's been our goal all along," he said.

Practically, officials have said, both school security officers and school resource officers serve the same purpose: They keep students safe.

School security officers, however, are employed by the school system and don't have the power to arrest people, and school resource officers are commissioned sheriff's deputies. Security officers have the same abilities as a sheriff's deputy to stop a threat to students, and most have previously served in law enforcement.

Ron Bernard, Garrett's chief of staff, told commissioners Tuesday that the Sheriff's Office has lost 24 people in the school resource officer division over the past three years. Bernard said turnover can occur for a variety of reasons, but pay is one of them.

"Currently, the market is such that individuals can go out and get higher paying jobs," he said.

Across the board, Bernard said, the Sheriff's Office is offering slightly lower pay compared to the Chattanooga Police Department.

"We need to raise the pay," he said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the county has approved pay raises over the past three years, and compensation for deputies remains a priority. They should be paid more, he said, but the problem is ensuring the county has enough revenue coming in to cover it.

The office gave out bonuses around Christmas and again in the spring, Coppinger said, but those one-time payments don't go towards an employee's retirement.

"It's like public education," Coppinger said. "People want it to be better. They want our deputies to be paid, they want them to have the best equipment. Then when you mention the word taxes, nobody wants to pay more for it."

Bernard told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that maintaining competitive pay can be a moving target, and there's a limited pool of applicants available for the number of job openings.

"It's the law of supply and demand, right?" he said. "Right now there's a bigger demand for the supply, so you have to get creative."

Bernard said the Sheriff's Office is short more than 100 positions across its operations, and eight of those are among school resource officers. Fundamentally, he said, the office wants to ensure it has all the district's schools covered, and partnering with the school system is a means of accomplishing that.

"That's really the bottom line for us," he said. "Let's make sure we're protecting the students."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.