Some East Valley schools could find themselves without police officers in their hallways this fall as a state school safety program faces a $3.7 million budget shortfall.
The state-funded program that places school resource officers and probation officers in 280 selected schools does not have enough money to fill the $18 million needed to pay for the officers.
While the number of officers needed has not changed since last year, their salaries and benefits have outpaced the funding authorized by state lawmakers.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne sent school districts a memo earlier this summer asking them to refrain from contracting with officers until a July meeting when lawmakers who oversee the program will allocate the money.
Last year, the Mesa Unified School District — the state’s largest — received nearly $1 million from the program, which funded 14 officers at 10 schools.
“We submitted our budget requests in April. ... Right now, we’re waiting to see if we have to make any cuts,” said Mike Kalember, the district’s director of school safety and security. “Who knows how it will come out. Hopefully, we won’t get hurt too bad.”
The funding problem comes at a time when the Mesa district is still determining how to cope with the loss of all its officers at junior high schools. Funding for those officers was slashed last year when Mesa cut programs to accommodate a budget shortfall for the city.
Mesa school officials have said the officers are instrumental in fighting a rise in school gang activity.
A number of the high school officers are on the Mesa Police Department’s gang task force, helping faculty identify telltale signs of gang activity as well as testifying against gang members in disciplinary hearings.
Aside from keeping the peace, school resource officers also spend time in the classroom, teaching law-related lessons — for example, discussing search-and-seizure in government class, or drunken-driving prevention class in driver’s education, said Kevin Quinn, president of the Arizona School Resource Officers Association and resource officer at Chandler’s Hamilton High School.
But Quinn said one of the most important functions of his job is to serve as a mentor and counselor to students.
“Kids have questions they may not be comfortable telling to an officer on the street, but because we’re here everyday, they’re comfortable asking us questions,” he said. “Maybe they got a speeding ticket and the patrol officer may not have explained the procedure 100 percent, so they ask us. Or they ask about issues in their family, or rumors of drug use ... it’s a great program that I would hate them to lose.”
Not every school district relies on the state School Safety Program. The Scottsdale Unified School District, for example, pays officers out of its own pocket. And Gilbert pays for most officers in the Gilbert Unified School District.
But for those districts that do rely on the program for funds, the School Safety Program Oversight Committee, of which Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, and Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, are co-chairmen, will meet later this month to determine what to do.
The committee has the power to allocate funds to schools based on safety needs — but not to get more money, Horne said.
For that, a proposal would have to be made during the legislative session. Horne said he tried to do that; two bills were introduced earlier this year that proposed additional funding, but neither passed.
“It’s unfortunate,” Horne said. “I think it’s very important we fully fund school resource officers. Not only do they help maintain order in school ... they help teach character and the importance of obeying the law.”
East Valley school districts
Last year, the state gave nearly $17.1 million to schools to fund school resource officers. The breakdown to East Valley school districts*:
Apache Junction Unified School District: $275,367 (4 officers)
Chandler Unified School District: $423,837 (5 officers)
Cave Creek Unified School District: $211,007 (3 officers)
Coolidge Unified School District: $97,902 (2 officers)
East Valley Institute of Technology: $144,887 (2 officers)
Florence Unified School District: $123,611 (2 officers)
Gilbert Unified School District (Highland High School): $48,950 (1 officer)
• Kyrene Elementary School District: $356,230 (5 officers)
• Mesa Unified School District: $975,076 (14 officers)
• Paradise Valley Unified School District: $636,480 (10 officers)
• Tempe Elementary School District: $271,162 (4 officers)
• Tempe Union High School District: $316,212 (5 officers)
NOTE: Not a complete listing of all school resource officers in each district. Reflects only those positions funded by the state program.