What Hawkins County taxpayers will have to decide is if they’re willing to pay the estimated $725,000 annual cost of putting a police officer in all 19 Hawkins County schools.
Last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., hits closer to home when you consider it’s been less than three years since a Sullivan County school resource officer (SRO) shot and killed a disturbed gunman inside Sullivan Central High School in 2010.
In neighboring Hawkins County Thursday, a group of school and county officials agreed that they now want a sheriff’s deputy SRO in all the county schools.
What they don’t know is if there will be enough votes on the county commission to raise the taxes needed to cover the cost.
Following a lengthy discussion Thursday evening, the Hawkins County Board of Education voted 7-0 to allocate up to $300,000 toward the hiring of 15 new sheriff’s deputies in order to place a full-time officer in all 19 schools.
Those funds would cover the new SROs’ salary, outfitting and training through the end of the current fiscal year on July 1.
The $300,000 is contingent, however, on the Hawkins County Commission making a 100 percent commitment to cover the recurring annual estimated cost of $725,000 to maintain those additional SROs for an entire school year.
Paying for 15 new SROs will require new revenue because neither the BOE nor the county commission has the money to handle that recurring cost.
It equates to approximately 10 cents on the Hawkins County property tax rate.
Currently, the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office has one full-time SRO at the rural K-12 Clinch School, and one each at Volunteer and Cherokee high schools.
There are also currently two full-time SROs who split their day at two schools, including one who covers the K-8 Bulls Gap School and Rogersville Middle; and one who covers Church Hill Middle and Surgoinsville Middle.
With five SROs already in place, Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said he would have to hire 14 more to cover all the schools, plus one more officer to serve as SRO supervisor, for a total of 15.
Thursday afternoon the county commission’s Education Committee met with the BOE about the need for more SROs. Later Thursday evening, the BOE discussed the issue in its own meeting.
During the Education Committee meeting, commissioners heard comments from Angie Hatfield, a parent from the Stanley Valley community who has five children in the Hawkins County Schools system.
Hatfield said times have changed since she was in school because her parents didn’t have to worry about whether or not she was going to make it home.
“Crazy things are happening everywhere, and just because we’re in this tiny, nice little place doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen here,” Hatfield said. “I didn’t know when I sent them to school if they’re coming home. I don’t think it’s fair that we have to worry so much about sending them to school.
“I know it costs a lot of money, and money is hard to come by, but I really would appreciate it if you could find a way to put officers in the schools.”
The full Hawkins County Commission is expected to discuss the issue when it meets in regular session Jan. 28.
Education Committee chairman Virgil Mallett also serves on the Budget Committee. Mallett said Thursday a likely scenario would be for the issue to be placed before the Budget Committee this spring and summer while the 2013-14 county budget is being prepared.
That would mean the funding couldn’t be approved earlier than August, and based on recent history, might come up for a vote as late as September or October.
The school board’s $300,000 allocation is “contingent” however, on a 100 percent commitment to fund this project by the county commission.
That commitment is a decision that would have to be made quickly in order to give Lawson time to begin hiring SRO deputies.
Lawson said that even if he had all the funding right now, he wouldn’t be able to implement an SRO program at all 19 schools before the beginning of the 2013-14 school year in August.
Lawson noted that he wouldn’t be able to hire all 15 at once. He would take his time and make sure he had hired good officers.
“I do see a great need for it,” Lawson said. “I’m willing to do whatever the school board and the county commission approves.”