Deputy on campus beginning fall semester
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
When a Putnam County sheriff’s deputy begins patrolling the Haldane school campus as a school resource officer, the Haldane Central School District joins its counterparts across Putnam County in employing an SRO; it also becomes more enmeshed in a Putnam County debate over funding the SRO program.
Haldane anticipates paying $55,000 for an SRO for the 2015–16 school year; costs in the years beyond 2015–16 remain unclear. Other Putnam County school districts recently received contracts with 14 percent increases in SRO charges for 2015–16. As of mid-afternoon Wednesday (Aug. 26), the district had yet to receive its own contract, a document expected to specify the exact amount of Haldane’s outlay this year. A recent Sheriff’s Department expense breakdown gives Haldane’s 2015–16 SRO cost as $77,110.
‘Our perfect match’
The school district last week approved Deputy Paul Piazza as its new SRO, announcing the choice in Cold Spring the same night that Putnam County legislators, in Carmel, advocated reductions in county SRO costs. Until now, Haldane was the only district with a high school in Putnam lacking an SRO. Piazza served as an SRO in Brewster and was described by Haldane Superintendent Diana Bowers at the Aug. 18 Haldane School Board meeting as an officer with “loads of experience” who “knew what it means to be an SRO” and who impressed the selection committee as “our perfect match.”
Bowers also informed the school board of a $7,000 grant, obtained with aid from New York State Sen. Sue Serino, to help offset district SRO costs; Haldane is seeking other grants as well.
“The SRO becomes a very trusted adult,” Bowers told the board. “It’s somebody the kids get used to very quickly. They’re seen as a support, a confidant.” She gave “health and safety reasons” as “the primary purpose for having an SRO” and pointed out that “his role would not be [that of] disciplinarian.”
Likewise, having an SRO “is not just for the worst-case scenario. We [administrators] are the one that calls the shots unless of course there’s a violent situation or something happening directly in front of the officer,” she explained. Typically, an SRO “is for more day-to-day” problems, such as child-custody disputes involving a school student, intruders on school grounds and so on, she said.
Writing on July 27 to Legislator Ginny Nacerino, who chairs the Putnam County Legislature’s Personnel Committee, Sheriff Donald Smith reported that SROs made 37 arrests in the 2013–14 academic year and made 38 arrests in the 2014–15 year, in the Brewster, Carmel, Mahopac and Putnam Valley districts. “Within the 2013–2015 school years,” he added, “the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office assisted the Haldane School District in 287 events; not all were drug-related.”
Shared costs and questions
Under the SRO program, Putnam County and a school district split the cost of an SRO. But while the county had been paying 60 percent of many costs, and a school district 40 percent, from now on the county wants a 50/50 split — hence the hike in SRO costs in the Brewster and Putnam Valley districts, whose administrators objected. Meanwhile, county officials have said deputies’ salaries and benefits also are rising in the near future.
Aug. 4, the Putnam County Legislature allocated $30,800 as the county share of Haldane’s SRO for the fall semester. That reflects four months of county costs at approximately $7,700 per month.
According to an Aug. 7 cost breakdown from the Sheriff’s Department, responding to a request from The Paper for financial details, for the fall term Haldane’s share of the SRO will be $30,844. Prepared by the department’s public information officer, Capt. William McNamara on behalf of Sheriff Smith, the memo states that the Haldane share of an SRO for the entire 2015–16, 10-month school year will be $77,110. That breaks down to $7,711 a month and covers not only salary and basic benefits but training expenses and half the “legacy” health care allocation for a deputy’s future retirement.
In a phone conversation Wednesday, Bowers told The Paper that Haldane believes its SRO share for 2015–16 will be $55,000 and said the Sheriff’s Department sergeant supervising the SRO program had confirmed the accuracy of that figure. Bowers said she understands that the district will be “grandfathered in” — allowed to pay at the lower rate in use when Haldane considered an SRO last autumn. “I think we’re OK for this year,” she said.
Upon hearing of Haldane’s assumption it will only pay $55,000 this year, McNamara on Wednesday said that the $77,110 in his cost breakdown came from the county Finance Department; he promised to look into the discrepancy.
During the school board’s Aug. 18 meeting, Board Vice President Peter Henderson wondered what would happen if the county limited its support for Haldane to the first semester (and the $30,800 already approved). He recommended the district ensure that its contract will not leave it liable for paying the entire SRO cost in the second semester.
To not fund Haldane the second semester, “they would have to cut off the funding for all SROs, because it would be equitable. That would be the issue between the legislature and the Sheriff’s Department,” Bowers answered. “It’s something that needs to be determined, where they [county] are going to get it. But it won’t come from us. If they were not going to keep their part of the bargain, they’d have to remove it from all districts. It couldn’t just be from us.”
Even if it pays $55,000 this year, Haldane could face escalating charges in other years, given the county’s focus on economizing.
At the county legislature’s Personnel Committee meeting Aug. 18, legislators and Finance Commissioner William Carlin discussed limiting the county SRO cost share. They also spoke of encouraging use of SPOs — special patrol officers — rather than SROs. Retired police officers screened by the Sheriff’s Department, SPOs annually cost $30,000 to $35,000, usually paid solely by the school district. SPO expenses includes no health care or pension costs, and an SPO’s compensation is about one-third of the approximately $90,777 listed by the Sheriff’s Department as the SRO’s pay.
“As we all know, the SROs are quite expensive to endure, with the legacy costs,” Nacerino said Aug. 18. “The school districts are struggling with their budgets, but then so are we.”
“Believe it or not, the county paid 60 [percent] and the school paid 40 for officers who spend 10 months of a year in schools,” Carlin said. “That’s why” the county wants districts to bear more of the burden of the program,
“to make it more palatable to the county budget, make it more of a 50/50, true cost sharing.”
“I’m interested in the county budget; I’m not interested in the school budget,” Legislator Dini LoBue said. “If they [schools] want a private police force, it’s up to them, it’s within their discretion. This comes at a very expensive cost — to have private deputy sheriffs go to each one of the schools. If they can’t sustain the cost, then they have to go with another option.”