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School resource officers contracts under review

There have been three School Resource Officers (SROs) in the Sunnyside School District for the past three years, but that may change.

Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole spoke to the Sunnyside City Council last night about the budget for the SROs, stating the district has been paying $100,000 each year for the past two years for those officers. That is the school district's budget for those positions again.

The current contract with the city is due to expire Sunday, July 31, and the city must decide if paying its share of the three officers' pay, $150,000, is still worth the cost.

Cole said, "The spirit of the SRO program is to partner services."

He said the school district also has five security liaisons to maintain safety for students.

When the city and the schools first partnered a grant helped offset the cost of SRO positions. That grant expired about five years ago. The city and the schools split the cost of two SROs evenly at the time, but the city picked up another $50,000 in 2008.

Cole admitted the agreement is not fair and equitable because the SROs are in the schools approximately three-quarters of the hours they are working.

"We have to figure out how to make this fair and equitable," he said, stating the school district is hoping levy funds might assist the school district next year in picking up some of the costs associated with the program.

Cole believes it is important to evaluate the functions and needs for SRO's.

"Where's the line between safety and security, and a police matter...are SROs doing more security liaison work?" he said.

Cole noted vacation time for SROs are not decided by the schools because the officers are city employees. He said the school district would like to retain the three officers, but it is up to the city as to whether or not to change the contract.

He provided options for reducing the number of SROs, saying the city could recall one or two of those officers to the city's patrol force.

"This is a balancing act...we can't minimize assuring the safety of the kids," said Cole.

Deputy Mayor Nick Paulakis is a teacher at Sunnyside High School and said he has seen the value first-hand in having SROs on campus.

"Students love them...they respond to fights and thefts, as well as other issues," said Paulakis.

Councilman Don Vlieger once served as a security liaison and said he believes it is the school district's responsibility to ensure the safety of the students. He believes, from his experience, security liaisons are sufficient for the district's needs.

Sunnyside Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck said the SROs currently working in the schools do respond to numerous calls. This past school year, he said, they responded to 1,300 incidents.

"A lot of the calls are for criminal behavior...one or two (SROs) would be extremely busy," he said.

Councilman Tom Gehlen said he feels the SROs are of high value. He believes they work to prevent larger problems, gang problems, in the city.

Vlieger said he is concerned with the amount of funding that is provided by the city of Sunnyside.

"The city has always been a partner, but never at this level...we have to look at our budget, too. I think the ratio is upside down," he said.

A decision was not reached last night. Council agreed to look at the issue further, and Schenck said he would be willing to provide more data. The discussion will resume at the Monday, July 25, regular City Council meeting.

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