Part-time officer? Oak Park Heights objects to planned school security cuts

District-ISD-834--Stillwater-Area-Schools-LogoFor the first time in at least 15 years, Stillwater Area High School likely won’t have a full-time school resource officer next school year.

The school district expects to cut the position from 40 hours to 20 as part of $70,000 in cuts to security, according to Ryan Laager, executive director of secondary education and K12 curriculum.

“We’re facing a $4 million shortfall next year,” Laager said. “These are difficult decisions we have to wrestle with.”

With the proposed reductions, an officer would come to the school on varying days at different times, and the schedule would not be public in advance. Despite the planned changes, Laager insists the students will be safe.

Citing a new “vestibule entrance” being installed at the school this summer, he said the building will be at least as secure as it is now. The entrance will force visitors to enter through the office during school hours.

In addition, Laager said, the school pays four full-time security guards who monitor the parking lot, halls and cafeteria. Together, the four guards cost about the same as a single school resource officer.

The district has been spending approximately $90,000 a year to pay a full-time officer from the Oak Park Heights Police Department. For about 10 weeks during the summer, when the district doesn’t need the officer, the city has benefited from his services at no cost.

Now the district says it can only afford to spend $45,000 a year.

Oak Park Height Police Chief Brian DeRosier said for that price the city would only be able to provide an officer for 20 hours a week. He told the city council May 27 that he thought 20 hours would be a “bare minimum” for the position.

According to a letter from DeRosier to Laager, the officer has been handling 150 or more documented calls for police each school year. Although the police would continue to respond to crimes in progress, crimes against persons, and property damage crimes when the officer is not on site, other issues would be documented and handled by school officials until the next time the resource officer was present.

“Please be carefully aware that there would not be special trips or advantages offered to the school while the SRO is not on site and all crimes/activities would be treated as any other facility, public or private,” DeRosier’s letter stated.

Laager said students at the high school are generally well-behaved and that many of the issues handled by the current school resource officer are minor, such as tickets written for tobacco or vandalism. Students will still receive those tickets, he said, but perhaps not until the next day. With the right procedures in place, Laager hopes the new schedule won’t be a burden on the police force.

But the Oak Park Heights City Council has concerns.

Mayor Mary McComber asked if the district would eventually do away with the position entirely. “As a board member, it would not be my advice to get rid of the safety officer,” School Board Chair Tom Lehmann reassured her. “I don’t believe we’re looking at eliminating it.”

Councilmember Mark Swenson said he thinks having the officer on site serves as a deterrent, but he said the city couldn’t simply pick up the extra tab.

“Please don’t take that funding away,” he said.

Councilmember Mike Runk pointed out that the city has budget challenges too, especially because it is in the process of hiring and training an officer to replace Fred Kropidlowski, who is retiring from the force this month. Kropidlowski has been serving as the school resource officer.

To make budget decisions more manageable, the city is seeking an agreement with at least a three-year commitment.

Laager said the district is doing everything it can to find funding, including seeking grants. But he said the reducing the hours of the high school resource officer makes the most sense at this point.

Both junior high schools have resource officers (through Stillwater and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office), but they don’t have additional security like the high school does. And unlike Oak-Land Junior High, Laager pointed out, the high school is in close proximity to the police station in case of an emergency.

The council still seemed unimpressed.

“I don’t know that I would’ve voted for a levy for increased security for schools knowing it was going to be decreased,” McComber said, adding that she might have difficulty voting for levies in the future.

Councilmember Chuck Dougherty agreed.

The council approved a resolution to urge the school board not to cut the officer’s hours and planned to send a representative to the June 12 school board meeting.

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]