Milford officials trying to find funding to put police officers in city schools

City and school officials say they want to hire police officers to work in the schools next year, but so far there isn’t any money allocated for the positions.

When the proposed 2013-14 city and school budgets take their next big step at a public hearing April 4, there won’t be funds in any line item to pay for school resource officers.

Instead, city officials say, they are working on finding other funding sources to pay for the officers, which are called school resource officers, or SROs.

During her initial budget presentation, school Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Feser said she would like to see four or five school resource officers circulating among the city’s schools.

She made the announcement shortly after the tragic shootings in Newtown, when all eyes were focused on heightening school security.

Milford Mayor Ben Blake said recently that the city’s top officials, including police Chief Keith Mello, still want to see the officers in place. While he was not specific, he said city officials are looking at finding ways to fund the positions outside of the regular city budget.

When Mello spoke before the Board of Aldermen in February, he told members that communities have been placing sworn law enforcement officers in schools on a full-time basis for the past two decades.

“The program continues to be popular today, and I predict that we will see a significant resurgence in SRO deployments to our schools,” Mello said. “There are a number of SRO models being used throughout the country, depending on the needs of the particular community.”

Some programs are weighted heavily on security, while others place increased focus on mentoring, conflict resolution and education.

“I envision a program that is specifically tailored to meet our needs here in Milford,” Mello said, describing a program that provides a  “strong security component” and law enforcement services tailored to students.

He praised the programs and said, “The result is that our schools, educators, support staff, and students are safer and better prepared to manage the unlikelihood of a threat to their school, where an SRO is present.”

An officer’s presence also makes parents, staff and students feel safer at school and makes learning more productive, he said.

Both Mello and Blake said it takes time to set up an SRO program because officers must be carefully selected and then trained for the special work.

Mello said additional Milford officers would have to be hired because the department doesn’t have the staff now to take on the extra posts.

Funding is the challenge, he said. For more than a decade, the department has applied for federal grants that support SRO programs but has been denied because of the city’s financial standing.

He didn’t have much hope that the city could secure other grants to pay for the positions because of its financial status compared to other cities.

“In the end, it will likely be up to the community, through our elected officials, to determine the value of a school resource program for our schools and whether it is worth the cost,” Mello said.

Tom Beirne, a former Board of Aldermen chairman, said he plans to speak up at the April 4 budget hearing and tell the aldermen that if they don’t find grants, they should add money to the budget to pay for the resource officers.

The cost for each, between salary and benefits, is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, Beirne said.

“People think we’re getting them,” Beirne said. “But they don’t realize there’s no money to pay for them.”

Beirne said he thinks the officers will provide a vital service, not just keeping schools safer but also representing a proactive step in identifying youngsters who might become a risk later in life.

The police department has been looking at alternate ways to fund the program, and so far has come up with about $100,000. First, the department could save $33,000 by staffing the mobile police van, called the COPSS program, with SROs during the summer months. Also, the department is now charging $10 for fingerprinting for permit applications, and that is expected to generate $18,000 a year. Finally, a school bus monitoring program may generate $50,000.

“We are anticipating partnering with a company that will be installing video cameras on the outside of our school buses that will detect and take video of the vehicles driving past a stopped school bus that is loading or unloading children,” Mello said. “This program, which is in place in many other communities, comes at no cost to the city, will identify and fine those offenders that are placing our children at risk at their bus stops, and will generate approximately $50,000 in revenue annually.”

Outside of that, the chief said the department already generates $135,000 that goes into the general fund. And, if the union and other parties agree, pay for private duty officers may be increased, and that extra money can also go toward paying for SROs.

The public hearing for the city budget will be April 4 at 7 p.m. at Milford City Hall. The hearing allows residents to voice their opinions on the city and school budget proposals.