Evesham Council accepts BOE’s $250,000 payment toward SRO program but warns program will change

Council said the offer was less than the $500,000 the township had requested to keep the program operating at its current capacity.

This story has been updated from a previous version to include comments made at the Evesham Township School District’s Board of Education meeting that took place after this story was posted.

The school resource officer program that has stationed cops in schools throughout the Evesham Township School District for the past year-and-a-half will continue in some form for the 2017–2018 school year, but the program will look different.

That was the warning from Mayor Randy Brown at this week’s Evesham Township Council meeting when council approved a resolution accepting the Evesham Board of Education’s offer of $250,000, which would only partially fund the current program.

Council said the offer was below the $500,000 figure the township had requested from the BOE to keep the program operating at its current capacity, and in comments made to The Sun after the meeting, Brown made it clear that council would not have the township allocate any additional funds to the program.

The fate of the SRO program has been in question since April, when council announced its decision to no longer fund the program starting next school year. Although the program cost the township $700,000 last year due to the higher-experience levels of the officers used for the program, council had only requested $500,000 from the school district, which was the estimated cost for newer, starting level officers.

In announcing intentions to stop funding the full cost of the program, council cited a strain on the municipal budget and a belief the BOE, with a budget totaling more than twice that of the township, should also contribute funds.

Council members also noted they were unaware of neighboring townships with SRO programs where local school districts did not contribute funding to the programs.

In response to council’s April announcement, the BOE set aside $250,000 for the program in the lead up to the board’s final approval of the 2017–2018 school year budget, with some BOE members wanting to allocate more money and some wanting to allocate less.

Some members of the BOE also argued that many other districts did not have officers stationed at each of their schools for a full day and believed police security was the responsibility of the township.

Since that time, Brown said the BOE has refused offers from council to have BOE members meet with members of council in closed-door meetings without administration officials to discuss the SRO program.

“We (council) set policy,” Brown said after the council meeting. “Their administration doesn’t set policy. Our township manager doesn’t set policy. Our township attorney doesn’t set policy. We wanted to get in on a closed door meeting and throw out ideas.”

Brown said the BOE also indicated to the township a belief such meetings would circumvent the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, which forces government bodies to conduct business in public.

However, Evesham Township solicitor John Gillespie said it was his opinion any such meeting would have been legal, as the Open Public Meetings Act specifically allows for such discussions between subcommittees of governing bodies.

At the BOE’s meeting later in the week, BOE president JoAnne Harmon did not mention any concerns with the Open Public Meetings Act that Brown had referenced.

Harmon only said that on multiple occasions she had welcomed members of the town council and members of the BOE’s finance committee to meet and discuss the SRO program, however, it was her belief that township and school district administrators should not be excluded.

“While we represent the families of this town, I think it would be irresponsible for us to have meetings without the input and presence of the people that know the town, security and the schools best, those being the town manager, the chief of police and chief administrator of our schools.”

Harmon went on to thank the chief of police, township manager, mayor and council for their partnership in agreeing to continue the SRO program.

During the BOE’s meeting, superintendent John Scavelli Jr. also responded to comments Brown made earlier in the week regarding $347,000 the district receives in state aid that the state names as “security aid.”

Scavelli said the names of state aid line items don’t necessarily correlate with how districts spend those monies. With the Evesham Township School District, Scavelli said all aid received from the state is classified as unrestricted, meaning the district is not required to match up expenditures to the amount of aid or the category of the aid received.

Regardless, Scavelli said the district already spends about $555,000 on security related items, which is above the $347,000 figure.

In regard to what the reduced SRO program might look like next year with only $250,000, Brown said Evesham Chief of Police Christopher Chew would be tasked with determining how to best disperse officers and their experience level, but no details have been shared with council and they will not be made public due to security concerns.

“It’s going to be disappointing to the 800-plus staff members of that district, it’s going to be disappointing to the teachers, it’s going to be disappointing to students, it’s going to be disappointing to parents and it’s going to be disappointing to the community,” Brown said.

However, Brown said council is still open to meeting with members of the BOE if they choose to amend their budget and add more money to the program.

“Time is starting to tick in my opinion, so we better start negotiating a deal soon, so that the service that the teachers, staff, students, principals and parents are expecting is up and running,” Brown said.

Council and the BOE first approved the SRO program in August 2015 when the district and township agreed to share four, part-time officers.

However, the program only lasted in that form until December of that school year when a juvenile with a replica gun was spotted at Van Zant Elementary School after school hours, causing a school lockdown.

In response to the incident, the township and district revised the program so it would station full-time officers at the building for the remainder of the year.

It was the township’s belief that the township and board of education were going to then share costs of the program for the 2016–2017 school year, but the township decided to bear the full cost of the program for that year to separate the issue from BOE’s discussion at the time regarding whether to close Evans Elementary School.