In a 3-2 vote on Monday, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners approved a plan to provide security to each county school using sheriff’s deputies as school resource officers.
This plan allows the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office to place officers at Westwood, Blue Ridge and Mountain View Elementary Schools. The high school and middle school already have a school resource officer program in place.
The split vote resulted primarily from questions of timing and financial consequences to the county, with Commissioners Gerald Price and Gary Roark voting against the motion to add the three new officers.
“I’m disappointed that the board didn’t postpone this (vote) until we heard all of the options,” said Roark during the commissioner comments portion of meeting after the subject had been debated and voted on.
For Price, his no vote centered on the potential long-term negative impact on county finances to fund three new law enforcement positions.
“Looking at the first 10 years, there will be a minimum of $5 million for those three officers,” said Price. He also said he is worried about the increased tax burden for county residents, including elderly couples who are having difficulty paying their light bill.
According to Ashe County Sheriff James Williams, the initial cost for adding three new officers would be between $85,000 - $100,000 per officer. This cost includes salary and benefits, as well as initial start up costs like vehicles, weapons and training. These additions will mean one officer will be stationed at each of the county’s five schools.
Ashe County Schools’ Interim Superintendent Donnie Johnson attended the meeting to answer any questions the commissioners might have during the debate.
Johnson responded to Price’s question about the cost of the program during the discussion.
“I’ve heard you say that before,” said Johnson, “I don’t think there is a price to pay for the safety of our students.”
During the debate, Price asked Johnson if he called anyone in Raleigh about possible supplemental funding for school resource officers, which Johnson replied “no.”
“Superintendents in other counties have approached this through their board of commissioners,” said Johnson.
During the debate, Roark questioned why West Jefferson Police Department Chief Jeff Rose had not been allowed to offer an alternative proposal to provide school security using WJPD officers that might save the county money.
Rose had already spoken briefly before the commissioners after one of its planning meetings earlier in February about the possibility of providing the school security service at a lower annual cost.
“There are three schools in his district,” said Roark. “It’s okay for Rose to offer security, at a cheaper price; no one wants to listen.”
Roark also said “he (Rose) came and sat through both meetings. Also, the board voted 5-0 to hear Rose’s proposal.”
“Someone got to West Jefferson to stop Rose’s proposal,” said Roark.
“It’s outrageous what some people will do to stop people from speaking their piece,” said Roark. He also said “this is dirty politics.”
Rose did not attend the meeting.
BOC Chair Larry Rhodes said he wanted to set the record straight.
“We did vote 5-0,” said Rhodes about allowing Chief Rose to offer an SRO proposal. However, Rhodes also said Chief Rose was “directed he was not to come by West Jefferson.”
“We have no jurisdiction over what West Jefferson does. Our jurisdiction stops at the line of West Jefferson, Jefferson and Lansing,” said Rhodes.
BOC Vice Chair Judy Porter Poe commented that she had already committed to having the sheriff’s office provide the additional school security.
“I gave word I would vote to have officers under the sheriff,” said Poe.
Before the commissioners cast their votes, another question was addressed; should Commissioner William Sands be allowed to vote on the proposal?
Because of his association with the ACSO, Roark proposed Sands be excused from casting a vote.
Ashe County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell said (according to the N.C. School of Government) the law provides a member may be excused if they have financial interests at stake.
Mitchell said the county determined Sands would be permitted to cast a vote in the SRO proposal.
Price said if Sands is allowed to vote, the commissioners may as well ignore all of the ethics training they had taken.
Sands then joined Poe and Rhodes in voting for the motion to add three additional SROs under the ACSO.
Commissioners and public comment
In response to Roark’s earlier comments, Sands cited a recent report about how Ashe County’s school system ranked 98th out of 115 school district in violent crimes.
“We’re living in a world that requires it,” said Sands. He also said employing the additional SRO’s wouldn’t be as expensive once the start-up costs had been paid.
Price ended the commissioners comment section of the meeting by reading a statement made by Darrell Scott, the father of a victim of the Columbine shooting, about school safety and gun control.
“And when something as terrible as Columbine’s tragedy occurs — politicians immediately look for a scapegoat such as the NRA. They immediately seek to pass more restrictive laws that contribute to erode away our personal and private liberties,” read Price during the meeting.
“We do not need more restrictive laws. Eric and Dylan would not have been stopped by metal detectors. No amount of gun laws can stop someone who spends months planning this type of massacre. The real villain lies within our own hearts,” read Price.
During the public comment section the the meeting, Tom Poe thanked commissioners Roark and Price for taking the increased tax burden into consideration during their vote.
“Where’s this money coming from,” said Tom Poe, “the county ought to get its own printing press.”
Tom Poe said he can now look forward to paying a higher property tax in order to fund the additional school resource officers. He also said students on buses are just as vulnerable as those in school, but it’s unlikely an SRO will be added to each bus to maintain student’s security.
“The vote you have today equals a vote from the public in another two years,” said Poe, asking the commissioners to bare that in mind when they make their decisions.