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‘Blindsided’: School Board, Anchorage Assembly meet over mayor’s proposed cost-shifting of school resource officers

Published: Nov. 19, 2021 at 6:44 PM AKST|Updated: Nov. 23, 2021 at 1:52 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage School Board and district officials met with the Anchorage Assembly on Friday morning over Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposed changes to the municipal budget. Disagreements over the funding of the School Resource Officer program, swimming pools and early childhood education were the impetus for the school board’s request for the meeting.

“We were a little, no a lot, blindsided by the mayor’s proposed cuts,” Margo Bellamy, president of the Anchorage School Board, said to open the meeting.

Bronson’s budget proposes a 25-75 split between the municipality and school district to fund the School Resource Officer program, which has 17 police officers, including a lieutenant and sergeant, assigned to the district. The district lauded the benefits of having officers trained specifically for school response, including special training for mental health, cultural diversity and first aid, and their focus on active threat situations.

“The bottom line is there is a big difference between a patrol officer and a school resource officer and how they work with kids,” explained Kersten Johnson, the senior director of secondary education for the district.

The line item in the Police Department portion of Bronson’s proposed budget shows no funding or positions for the School Resource Officers, but Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for the mayor, says that’s because the officers would still be part of the police department if they were not in the resource officer program. The budget lists a 3/4 cost share to the district of the $2.3 million cost of the program. Since school is not in session 25% of the year, the municipality would cover that fourth of the cost.

In the program’s 20-year history, it has had varying levels of cost-sharing between the municipality and school district. Since 2015, the Municipality has fully funded the program. From 2011-2014 the district supported between $1.2 million and $2.8 million of the cost of the program, and in 2010, $400,000.

Municipal Manager Amy Demboski first announced the proposal to have the district pay for 75% of the program when the mayor’s budget was unveiled in October. After a large fight broke out at West Anchorage High School this week, which school resource officers responded to, Bronson wrote in a Facebook post that the resource officer program is “critical.”

“I will not be cutting this program,” he wrote. “I will absolutely work hard to find the money to fund the SROs for our schools.”

While members of both bodies generally agree that the Student Resource Officer program is valuable to the district and the community, both sides also expressed frustration that the school board and district officials had little notice of some of the proposals, and had yet to hear from the mayor directly on the budget.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said her office had reached out to the mayor’s office to schedule a discussion, but that they had not yet had one.

“That’s worrisome because our budget is scheduled to be passed on Tuesday,” said assembly member Forrest Dunbar, “Honestly, it’s a little bit shocking.”

Larry Baker, who spoke on behalf of the mayor’s office, said Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy had discussed the program’s budget with the district on Oct. 1, and that there had been two subsequent meetings with the municipal attorney and McCoy in the following weeks. After the meeting, MJ Thim, a spokesperson for the Anchorage School District, described the Oct. 1 call as a “professional courtesy” call shortly before the mayor announced his budget that day. Bishop said those meetings did take place, but pressed to have a meeting with Bronson himself. Baker said he’d “make it happen.”

Baker said the city’s tax cap formula, combined with a 30,000-person drop in the city’s estimated population, results in the municipality being able to collect $7.5 million less in property taxes than in 2021. He said that presented a “particularly difficult problem” for the mayor, who pledged not to reduce line items in the budget for firefighters or police officers on the street.

Assembly member Felix Rivera asked if the school board had taken a position on the funding of the resource officer program, or on its goals for future configurations of the program. Bellamy said the board had discussed the value of the program, but not how it would budget for the added responsibility proposed in the mayor’s budget.

“We’re in a position right now where we don’t have time to have those discussions because we had $2.3 million shifted to us literally overnight, from my perspective,” Bellamy said.

Bellamy asked the assembly to fund the resource officer program in the municipal budget in order to give the board, with four new members, and the community, time to give input on the goals and implementation of the program.

Assembly member Crystal Kennedy suggested keeping the budget proposal for resource officers as is, since the school district has a longer timeline in which to complete its budget.

“I would suggest we allow the municipality to move forward in the way that it is and give that time to the Anchorage School Board and the school district to wrestle with their funding as well,” Kennedy said.

She said the assembly could revisit the topic in first-quarter budget revisions in March.

“I think there is some time available by where we’re not really going to be shutting down a program specifically because of the way the Anchorage School District’s budget works from a July 1 to June 30 time frame.”

The two bodies spent most of their hour and 45 minutes discussing the program. The assembly held a work session later Friday on alcohol tax funding, which is where the early childhood education cuts reside in the budget. Swimming pool funding was not discussed directly at Friday’s joint meeting.

The Bronson administration may submit a substitute budget before Tuesday’s upcoming assembly meeting. The assembly must pass a budget before Dec. 10.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more specific information on past funding of the SRO program by the Anchorage School District.

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