Local, State Officials Talk School Security Funding Solutions For Marshall County
Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett said the recent public debate regarding school safety resulted in a larger group coming to the table to talk solutions. He said a May 1 virtual meeting with local and state elected officials as well as the families of the two children who died in the Jan. 23, 2018 Marshall County High School shooting was “positive.”
Participants of the virtual meeting to discuss school safety funding options included: Lovett, Calvert City Mayor Lynn Jones, Benton Mayor Rita Dotson, Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal, State Rep. Chris Freeland, State Senator Danny Carroll, and the parents of Bailey Holt and Preston Cope.
Lovett said he hasn’t given up hope for the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant which could provide three additional school resource officers (SROs) needed to meet the bare minimum for school security. A debate during a recent Marshall County Fiscal Court meeting revealed Lovett and his staff worked closely with Marshall County Sheriff Eddie McGuire and his staff to put together an application for a federal matching grant which would have assisted with the cost of three SROs over the next three years, but because Neal declined to sign off on the measure they were unable to apply. Then the deadline for application passed.
Lovett said in the aftermath he reached out to the offices of Kentucky 1st District Congressman James Comer (R) and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R) because it was a federal grant, and asked both officials to advocate on behalf of the school district to accept a late submission. He said although he’s spoken with representatives of McConnell’s office he hasn’t received an official response.
Comer issued a letter dated April 30 to U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Director Phil Keith, asking him to consider allowing a late submission for the Cops Hiring Program (CHP) funding. The letter notes Comer also included the application completed by Lovett and McGuire, as well as correspondence between the two, better explaining the need.
“All students should feel secure in their learning environment,” Comer wrote. “The hiring of these additional officers would not only improve the learning and safety outcomes for students and faculty, but would provide peace of mind and confidence in the school system for parents and the community.”
McGuire said even if the DOJ is willing to accept a late application, “there will still be a bridge we have to cross” in getting Neal to sign the document. He said in the best case scenario, if the DOJ were willing to accept a late submission, Neal would take the matter before the commissioners and hold a vote.
“If it dies there then at least we could say it had some due process,” he said.
Lovett and McGuire agree Kentucky Senate Bill 1 (SB1), sparked by the 2018 Marshall County High School shooting and passed in spring 2019, includes the goal of Kentucky schools having at least one security officer per campus. And they both expressed desire to be ahead of that mandate, with security of the students in the forefront.
The Marshall County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) currently employs eight SROs: three are assigned to the high school, each of the two middle schools have a full-time SRO assigned to their campuses, but the six elementary schools have three SROs--each SRO splits time between two. Lovett and McGuire have a goal of providing one full-time SRO per elementary school.
McGuire said three is the minimum needed at the high school to properly patrol the large campus which houses approximately 1,300 students. He said typically, two SROs patrol the main buildings while the third patrols the tech center.
Lovett said from the school’s perspective, it’s not a matter of funding. He said the school district has allocated funds to cover the ongoing security costs and they’re ready to take on the salaries and benefits of the additional officers. But it would have been nice, he noted, to have been able to provide the SROs at a reduced cost with the assistance from the COPS grant.
McGuire said he didn’t feel as if funding was the issue for his office either. He explained his office is on target to produce a $200,000 carryover which could have covered the county’s responsibility (between $90,000-125,000) of the cost for all three additional SROs for the three years the grant would have subsidized a portion of the cost. He said he’s projected to have a carryover (due to the fees his office collects) of $300,000 at the end of the upcoming fiscal year as well. And during those three years, he said, his office and the school could have worked together on a long-term plan.
McGuire said his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year (which begins July 1) included one additional SRO to begin in August, which won’t come to fruition if the county’s proposed budget passes as it was presented during the first reading on April 30. He said the agreement between MCSO and the school district requires the school to cover the salary, retirement and benefits of the SROs during the school year when they’re securing the school; the MCSO is responsible for those costs during the three months when school isn’t in session and those officers are added to patrol during the busy, summer tourist season.
Lovett said an option proposed by Neal during the meeting was a county police force separate from the sheriff’s office which would function as the school’s security, employing school law enforcement officers (SLEOs). Lovett said while he’s willing to work with anyone to provide security for the students, he’s not interested in becoming a police chief. He said his priority is providing 11 officers for the school district.
“I’m an educator, not in law enforcement,” he said. “There are so many trainings that officers have to go through and I have no background in law enforcement. But if you have school officers, then basically your superintendent is the chief of police so then I would be responsible for making sure that everyone went through the training they were supposed to have. So if I missed one of those or something comes up and I didn’t know about it and then something were to happen, I don’t want to be responsible because I didn’t know any better.”
McGuire said he wasn’t included in the May 1 call and the county police force is not something Neal has discussed with him directly, but he has conversed with law enforcement officials in other Kentucky counties who say that setup presents issues. For example, McGuire said a SLEO’s jurisdiction stops at the school property boundaries and their authority is limited, so if a SLEO were to discover sexual assault, drugs or violent encounters, they would have to call in the sheriff’s deputies to conduct the investigation, “so why not already have us out there.”
Senator Danny Carroll, a 24-year law enforcement officer who retired as assistant police chief with Paducah Police Department, said there are “many, many issues” with the county police force which made him hesitant in considering that option as a solution. He said creating and operating a law enforcement agency is not a simple task, he’s concerned about the cost of creating and maintaining such a force, and the bureaucracy of operations, training and record-keeping. He said he’s also not under the impression the school district is interested in overseeing its own police department, which is essentially what that structure would create.
“And I’m not real sharp on the idea because the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county and to me it seems like a little bit of duplication of effort. That structure is set up, they have the personnel to do the record-keeping, to do all the things that they need to do. I don’t know that I agree with setting up another agency but I think it’s something that could be talked through, and talk out what the pitfalls are and what the advantages are and also the cost,” he said. “It’s something I would want the sheriff to be involved in and I would want to understand better what his needs are, what his ability would be to absorb three more officers as far as pay and being fee-based, his resources are limited and he depends on the county to supplement and I think that’s where the county’s involvement comes in.”
McGuire said the fees he collects (vehicle inspections, lawsuit filings, portion of school tax fund for collection service, etc.) fund approximately 60% of his budget, so only about 40% is taxpayer funded. He said for the current fiscal year the county will have subsidized approximately $1.25 million, not $1.6 million, of the approximately $3.1 million total budget.
Carroll said he believes the simple solution is hiring “seasonal” SROs through the MCSO who only work during the school year and take off during school breaks. He said he felt that job would appeal to retired officers with children or grandchildren in the school system, it wouldn’t put a strain on the MCSO’s budget but they could still oversee the officers, negating the need for creation of an entirely separate police force. In addition, he said, each school would have at least one officer in which case, everyone wins.
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