SRO program now in hands of aldermen: Vote expected May 16

Police Chief Keith Mello is halfway toward getting the school resource officers he wants to hire to work in the school system next school year. He hopes a presentation he made earlier this week, in which he outlined more than $500,000 he’s found within his budget to pay for the officers, has brought him closer to his goal.

The Board of Education voted 7-3 last week to support the school resource officer, or SRO, program. The board then voted 8-2 in favor of transferring $150,000 from anticipated savings in the schools’ energy account this year to pay for the SROs next year.

The $150,000 represents half the expected cost of four school resource officers.

On Monday night, Mello told the Board of Aldermen where he thinks the other half can come from, and now he will have to wait to see if they approve four new positions for SROs in the city budget. The aldermen are expected to vote on that May 16 during budget discussions at City Hall. It will take a two-thirds vote of the board to add the positions.

“This year the Police Department will generate approximately $60,000 in new revenues from two initiatives,” Mello said. “Further, the department and the police union have reached an agreement that will allow us to generate approximately $35,000 each year from the private duty surcharge fee. In fiscal year 2015, we will cut $30,000 for COPSS Program funding from the police budget. As a result, there will be approximately $125,000 in new revenues and savings that can be directed to the program. These revenues are in addition to the approximately $150,000 in revenues collected by the department each year.”

Mello said other efficiencies and initiatives will produce even more surplus, for a total of as much as $507,000.

“In the end, I believe there will be sufficient sustainable revenues and savings to fund this program without any impact on the budget,” Mello said.

During a four-hour meeting last week, Mello presented a wealth of information about SROs to the Board of Education, city aldermen and residents. He was assisted by several experts in the field, including Dr. David Bernstein, an expert in risk and threat assessments. (See related story.)

Mello and school Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Feser started talking about instituting an SRO program shortly after the tragic Newtown shootings.

An SRO would be assigned to each high school under Mello’s plan. The other two officers would be assigned to the three middle schools and would have responsibilities at the elementary schools.

Responding to questions, Mello made it clear that SROs should be armed.

“Whenever you call a police officer to a school, you get a uniformed, armed police officer,” Mello said, adding that the gun is part of the uniform.

Several school officials, including Jonathan Law High School Principal Fran Thompson and Dr. Feser, talked about their experience with SRO programs in other school districts they worked in and said they want them here.

Thompson said SROs can speak in health classes and science classes, and they can work with students in AP government classes. Feser said she has seen SROs interact with schoolteachers, counselors and administrators.

Several SROs from other towns spoke, too.

Police Lt. Sal Nesci, who was an SRO in Meriden, said “students will achieve higher grades if we make them feel safe.”

Patricia Tesla, an SRO in Stratford, said she has a background in social work and she actually went to a student’s home once to talk to parents when she saw the student struggling.

She said SROs develop a strong bond with the students in the school.

Alec Voccola, also a Stratford SRO, reiterated that.

“The bond I have with these kids is phenomenal,” he said. “When I told the kids I was coming here to talk, they wanted to come, too.”

Voccola said he leads Internet safety programs, underage drinking programs with Mothers Against Drug Driving and other programs in the school.

Another speaker commented that while she thinks highly of the SRO program, she wants more attention focused on the number of social workers in the schools.

Christine Limone, a Milford resident and director of political advocacy for the National Association of Social Workers, Connecticut chapter, said her group believes there should be a ratio of one social worker to 400 students.

“No town in Connecticut meets that,” she said, pointing out that at Jonathan Law High School the ratio is 1.5 social workers to 1,000 students.

School social workers would work in tandem with an SRO, she said, and while SROs cannot clinically diagnose a student, social workers can. She urged the school board to consider more funding for school social workers.

Former school board member Pam Staneski also spoke. She said the board discussed SROs 11 years ago.

“Eleven years ago, there was a need for SROs at the schools and that need still exists,” Staneski said.

Former Board of Aldermen Chairman Tom Beirne supports the program but doesn’t think the city and the school can split the costs. “Who is that person working for?” he asked.

He wants the school board to fund the whole program, and he said he sees room in the budget to do so.

Most school board members said they support the program. Susan Glennon said she “wholeheartedly” supports it and was pleased to hear the Stratford officer say she went to a student’s house to talk to the family.

Several board members voted against the initiative. Beverley Pierson said she sees a gap because students who are bullied don’t usually want to talk about it, and she didn’t see how SROs would fill that gap.

Chris Saley said he wasn’t comfortable voting on the program because when the board was asked to vote, the members didn’t know where the money would come from.

Jim Richetelli said later that he anticipates savings of $200,000 to $250,000 in the energy account at the end of the school year due to an energy-saving program implemented in 2011.

The board voted 7-3 to support the program, with Saley, Pierson and Earl Whiskeyman voting in opposition.

After the funding was clarified, the board voted 8-2 to move $150,000 from energy savings to pay for SROs. Saley voted in favor, but Pierson and Whiskeyman still voted against it.

Now the program is in the hands of the aldermen. Mayor Ben Blake said he believes the aldermen will vote on adding four positions to the budget at their budget meeting May 16. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at Milford City Hall.

There is a budget meeting scheduled for Monday, May 13, but Blake does not believe the vote will happen then.

Two-thirds of the aldermen must vote to add the positions in order for the SRO program to go forward.