January 28, 2010
|Commissioners Get Into Taser, Mold Talk|
Members of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners grilled the Guilford County Board of Education on the cost of law enforcement officers in the schools and the lack of clear answers as to the cause of illnesses at Oak Ridge Elementary School at a joint meeting of the two boards on Wednesday, Jan. 20.
The two boards also debated the merits of law enforcement officers who are stationed in the schools – school resource officers (SROs) – carrying Tasers, and the possibility of replacing them with cheaper security guards.
The meeting was the last chance for the commissioners to question the school board members before the issues come to a head: the school board plans to return students to Oak Ridge on Feb. 22; and the board met with High Point Police Chief Jim Fealy, Greensboro Police Chief Tim Bellamy and Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes on Wednesday, Jan. 27 in a session requested by the school board so its members could air their unhappiness about the carrying of Tasers by SROs, something the school board members admit they have no authority to prevent.
The two boards never got around to discussing the school system's budget or school construction, two subjects over which they are always at loggerheads.
Getting some of the fighting over the school system's budget started early might have been a better use of the time – the commissioners have no real authority over the handling of the Oak Ridge debacle, except for secondarily, as a funding body, and neither the school board nor the commissioners have any authority to determine how police officers are equipped, a power that's vested in Barnes and the police chiefs.
Still, anything that reduces friction between the two boards may pay off come budget season. And there are outstanding questions about Oak Ridge, which has tested clean for mold, but where no one has determined the cause of symptoms reported over a four-year period by teachers and students.
The joint meetings were started after years of budget fights and a bizarre 2000 lawsuit in which the school board sued the commissioners over school system funding. This one began with a complaint by school board member Amos Quick that the commissioners had created the agenda for the meeting. Quick said the school board hadn't yet voted on Tasers in the schools or on the future of SROs.
Quick said, "It would be our wish that the next time we have a joint meeting, the agenda would be prepared jointly."
The complaint is indicative of one of the major problems these boards have: The school board refuses to admit they are not coequal boards. The Board of Commissioners decides how much in county tax dollars to allocate to the schools. The school board does not decide how much the county receives to spend.
The two boards are debating two issues concerning the SROs – whether the school system should have them at all and whether or not the officers should be armed with Tasers. SROs in high schools are state funded, but Guilford County Schools picks up the tab for the officers in middle schools, which cost $73,000 per officer – a total of $2.9 million for the 39 officers in the high schools and middle schools combined.
Commissioner Bruce Davis has suggested replacing the officers with security guards, who would be paid less and wouldn't have to have police cars. At the meeting, Davis said that safety is a top concern in the schools but that it can be achieved without officers, or Tasers, in the schools.
Davis said, "All these years, we've had fights in schools and arguments and disagreements and we've been able to handle them without SROs in schools, without Tasers and so on."
The median pay for security guards in Guilford County is $27,000, and state law requires that they have only four hours of training – although many reportedly have 40 hours, still a pittance compared to the training police officers and sheriff's deputies undergo.
An argument can be made that security guards could maintain security in the schools, particularly middle schools. The political problem with pulling SROs out, after they are already there, is that the officers are generally popular with parents, and removing them would leave the school board looking bad if serious incidents occur at the schools later.
School board member Paul Daniels strongly supported keeping the SROs. He said he felt the same way about SROs and Tasers – that it was sad to have to have them, but that violence in schools has increased to a point where they're necessary. He said that security guards, who aren't sworn officers and can't make arrests, wouldn't be a good substitute.
Daniels said the fact that people have been killed by Tasers shouldn't be determinative, as there are no completely safe weapons.
"I would suggest to you that they don't exist," he said. "People have been killed by nightsticks. People have been killed by pepper spray."
But Davis and school board member Deena Hayes argued that Tasers escalate disciplinary incidents because using a pistol requires more thought than using a Taser.
Hayes accused the police chiefs of being disrespectful to the school board by issuing the Tasers without informing the school board. She said the majority of offenses in the schools are nonviolent and noncriminal. "Sometimes, SROs can escalate a situation," she said.
The school board hasn't voted on whether to object to Tasers in the schools – not that it has any authority to ban them – but many of its members oppose them. What's not clear is whether they will take that position publicly as a board.
School board member Sandra Alexander said the school board members had discussed Tasers informally and were outraged by the idea of children being Tased, and were "compelled" to ask for the meeting with the police chiefs.
School board member Carlvena Foster, who represents High Point, said she wasn't personally in favor of Tasers in the schools, but that strong policies on how they are used can make a difference. She said the High Point Police Department has never Tased a student under Fealy, which she called "remarkable."
Commissioner Linda Shaw took the lead on Oak Ridge for the Board of Commissioners. She said she hears from parents who don't want to send their children back to Oak Ridge Elementary School because they fear there is something wrong with the facility. She asked, "Was there much mold found in the school?"
Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Leo Bobadilla responded that there was evidence that there had been mold in the ceiling tiles in the school's library, but that those tiles have been replaced. He, like other school officials and officials of the Guilford County Department of Public Health, said that mold is everywhere but isn't a problem unless moisture gets into a building – which he said remediation work at Oak Ridge has prevented.
School board member Darlene Garrett, who represents Oak Ridge, said she thought the illnesses at the school were real, but that the problems with the building had been fixed.
"Some people kind of like to say that maybe this wasn't a real problem, and this was hysteria," she said. "I don't believe that at all. I don't often compliment our Facilities Department, but I think they did a great job."
Garrett said that closing Oak Ridge was the right thing to do. Asked by Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston whether she felt good about reopening the school, she said, "I do."