by Joseph Gresser
NEWPORT — After a discussion that occasionally veered toward the contentious, the North Country Union High School board decided Tuesday to move forward on negotiations with Newport aimed at hiring a city police officer as a community resource officer in the school.
The board was acting on a recommendation from its human resources committee, which favors hiring the officer.
Newport representative Richard Cartee said he is worried that the $40,000 available to pay for the officer will be too little, and the school will find itself spending money it doesn’t have.
Principal Bill Rivard pledged not to spend more than the amount given to the school out of Medicaid funds.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Mr. Cartee said.
“Please do,” replied Mr. Rivard.
Mr. Rivard said the $40,000 represents new Medicaid money above and beyond the money now used to pay for a half-time school psychologist and a behavior specialist.
Mr. Rivard said he has spoken with Newport Police Chief Seth DiSanto and come up with a draft of a memorandum of understanding outlining the responsibilities of the school and the police department.
Under the terms of the memorandum the officer will “provide specialized assistance… to the school’s administrators, teachers and parents.”
The agreement also lists the officer’s duties as providing instruction to students, investigating criminal activity, and dealing with other police matters concerning the school or students.
Newport Mayor Paul Monette, who attended the school board meeting along with Alderman Dennis Chenette, said the council has yet to see the agreement. Mr. Monette said he is concerned about any potential cost to city taxpayers.
“The bottom line is that we already have a million dollar police force and we don’t want to increase that,” the mayor said.
Mr. Cartee said he was disturbed to hear people saying that he attended the city council meeting Monday night in order to oppose the board’s plans.
He had gone to the meeting as a Newport taxpayer, he said, to express his concerns about the possibility that the city would get stuck with unforeseen expenses.
Richard Nelson, a board member from Derby, said he has mixed feelings about the proposal. While he understands that the cost of the program’s first year will be covered by the Medicaid grant, “all good things come to an end,” he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Nelson continued, most of the people he’s spoken to about the proposal have favored hiring a school resource officer.
“I spoke with some police officers,” he said. “They’re eager to see it, see how it works. It could be a benefit to the school and a benefit to the students.”
Mr. Nelson said the school has an ex-state trooper serving as truancy officer, who is “a hell of a good guy doing a good job,” but he will retire someday.
The school could think about combining the two positions, Mr. Nelson said.
He said that although some people worry about having a law enforcement officer in school “I always believe, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.”
The board need not worry about negotiations, he suggested, because any changes made by the police or city officials would have to be ratified by the school board.
Scott Boskind, another of Derby’s representatives on the board and himself a former school principal, said that it’s important to think about the question of school safety.
“While no one wants to talk about the most horrific events,” he said, the violent attacks in Newtown, Connecticut and Columbine, Colorado, should never be forgotten.
Mr. Boskind even cited a school massacre in 1927 in Michigan “where a school board member planted a bomb because he was disgruntled.”
Mr. Cartee laughed. “I appreciate that,” he said.
“While I’m glad that we have a board member who is cognizant of finances, we all have a passion to make sure students come to school and are going to be safe,” Mr. Boskind said.
“I think that never, ever, ever can you say I am not concerned about safety of students,” Mr. Cartee said. But all too often the school approves spending on a program and then exceeds that amount, he continued.
He said that a good example is the cost of the school’s new running track, the bulk of which was to have been paid for through private fund-raising events, but which was largely paid for with public funds.
If hiring a resource officer costs $50,000 a year, and voters approve the expense, that would be fine with him, Mr. Cartee said.
Mr. Rivard said that the cost of a Newport officer would vary depending on the amount of experience the officer has. Should a very senior officer decide to seek the post, that might mean fewer days on the job.
For instance, Mr. Rivard said, it might mean the officer is in the school 125 days a year rather than 175. In no event, he said, would the cost exceed $40,000
Maggie Griffith, one of Newport’s representatives, asked Mr. Rivard if officers are called to the school often.
Mr. Rivard said he didn’t have figures, but they are there “some.”
Mr. Nelson said the officers he talked to said there ought to be a school resource officer because they are called to the school four or five times a week. He made a gesture indicating that he didn’t believe those statements.
There were no votes cast in opposition to the plan to seek a school resource officer. Mr. Nelson abstained from voting.
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