Only 1 in 3 public schools in Hamilton County now has a school resource officer.
Though the school district committed an additional $500,000 in funding in the 2018-2019 fiscal year budget, there are actually fewer resource officers in the county's 79 public schools than last school year.
That fact was part of a Thursday report on the district's readiness and safety presented by Kenneth Bradshaw, the district's new chief of operations, to the Hamilton County Board of Education. Bradshaw took over for longtime school leader Lee McDade.
The report outlines security enhancements and safety updates made in the past year, as well as other updates within the operations department. That department also encompasses facilities and maintenance, transportation, food service, information technology and school-age child care.
"Given the climate of what's happening in the world, there's nothing more important than the safety of our students," said District 3 board member Joe Smith.
Last year, 31 officers — including two employees of the Chattanooga Police Department — served in 29 schools. Four more vacancies have come up at Orchard Knob Middle School, East Lake Academy, Chattanooga School of Arts and Sciences and Hixson Middle School because of promotions and an officer out on long-term medical leave, said Lt. Eric Merkle of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
Three of those schools are in board member Tiffanie Robinson's District 4. She calls the shortage "unacceptable."
"Every child should be in a safe place," Robinson said. "I'm very concerned about this."
District leaders, including Bradshaw and Superintendent Bryan Johnson, noted that the district has been in "constant communication" with the sheriff's office, which trains and hires officers.
"School safety is always at the core of what we have to focus on," Johnson said. "As the parents of students who are in school myself, you expect your child to come home safe. We will continue to refine our safety plans."
If all budgeted positions were filled, that would mean 38 officers in 36 schools. That would still leave 41, or more than half, of the district's schools without a resource officer.
The push for added school resource officers built momentum after a series of incidents across the country, including a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead and a situation in which a Dalton High School teacher in Dalton, Georgia, barricaded himself inside a classroom with a gun in February.
When the Hamilton County Commission was considering next year's budget in May, Commissioner Tim Boyd urged his fellow commissioners to join the push for more resource officers.
At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, every high school and all but one of the middle schools had a resource officer.
School board Chairman Steve Highlander, of District 9, said ideally there would be a resource officer in every school in the county.
However, even if the estimated $3.5 million in additional funding was available, Sheriff Jim Hammond has noted throughout the year that it would not be an automatic fix.
The hiring process for school resource officers is extensive, Merkle told the Times Free Press. If the applicant is from outside the department, the process includes an interview, background check, psychological evaluation, fitness tests, a minimum of 8 weeks of field training and an additional 16 hours of training required by the state specifically for school resource officers.
Bradshaw noted Thursday that eight applicants are scheduled for the first phase of the hiring process: an agility exercise. An additional 12 applicants are awaiting a scheduled evaluation.
The district will prioritize the four schools with vacant positions before adding newly funded positions to other schools. The goal is to have at least one officer in every high school and middle school, Johnson said.
Johnson was not able to provide a timeline for when he thought the 11 positions would be filled.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly identified board member Tiffanie Robinson's district. Robinson's district is District 4.