“It’s all about the money:” North Salem Board of Ed votes against funding a second school resource officer
Last June, following the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the North Salem Central School District Board of Education voted to authorize an additional school resource officer to serve the district. The vote took place during a highly emotional Board of Ed meeting in which parents pleaded with trustees to add the position, trustee Paul Giamundo, bucking procedure, put the issue to a roll call vote and Board president Deb D’Agostino abruptly ended the meeting before attendees had a chance to participate in the second public comment session.
Five months since that vote, the district has yet to place an additional officer within the district. The current SRO, Sean Armstrong, covers both the elementary school and the middle school/high school, a distance of .7 miles apart. The original vote authorized superintendent Ken Freeston to enter into contract for a second SRO, but the position was not budgeted for. During Wednesday night’s Board of Ed meeting, members voted on whether to authorize the district to fund the position, at least for this year, by using the district’s fund balance, which is essentially a rainy day fund. The measure was voted down 4-2.
In explaining their ‘no’ vote Wednesday night, current board president Andrew Brown and trustee Brandy Keenan argued that an SRO is not the most effective preventive safety measure. “What experts do say is effective in keeping our students safe against a school shooting is a locked door, hardened entrances, a culture of safety, and mental health services. School shootings are a mental health issue and students nationwide are in a mental health crisis,” Keenan said. In June, Keenan did vote in favor of an SRO; her ‘no’ vote on Wednesday centered on adhering to board policies and procedure, she explained.
“The assertion that there was money in the budget for it was false. It was false then. It continues to be false now,” Keenan said. “The idea that as board members we would have come to the reasonable conclusion that the funding would come from the fund balance is also false. “
The district’s fund balance is currently $1.4 million and is to be used for non-recurring emergency purposes, according to Freeston. “We do not fund personnel from the unassigned fund balance,” he said in an email to The North Salem Post.
Trustee Paul Giamundo argued that the $97,000 needed to fund an SRO through the remainder of this school year qualifies as a worthwhile emergency expense. “I can’t imagine anybody in the community saying if we have $1.4 million we shouldn’t take $97,000 for an SRO, knowing all the benefits of having an SRO in the community,” Giamundo said.
“A move like this to fund a salary is not an appropriate usage of fund balance and a further break of our policies and procedures,” Keenan said Wednesday. “Why are we so single mindedly focused on our students’ safety only in terms of a school shooting? And is an SRO the best option for protecting our students against a shooter?”
The district’s current contract with Westchester County for school resource officer Sean Armstrong expires June 2024. “During the upcoming 2023-24 budget preparation and discussion, we will have to consider whether that contract renewal would be for one or two SROs, and requires a 5-year commitment. The second SRO would add approximately $1 million additional expenditure over the five years,” Freeston said.
In her remarks, Keenan mentioned research done by the Washington Post, Texas State University, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and other academic research institutions that suggest SROs are ineffective in preventing school shootings or in limiting loss of life during active shooter situations. “They also discovered that the presence of an armed SRO was, in fact, an attractant,” Keenan said. A 2021 JAMA Network study found that "controlling for…location and school characteristics, the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present."
Some community members, including those with law enforcement backgrounds, disagree and say that adding an SRO is an important component of a layered security strategy. Nicole Corsi Gould is a retired police officer who started a community petition to add an SRO last June. “As a mother and a retired police officer, I am embarrassed for the district. This board had an opportunity to do what was right for the added safety of the community’s children, and seemed to do so in June 2022 with a majority vote of 4-3 ‘in favor’ of an SRO at PQ Elementary. After months of stall tactics, and flat out lies the board somehow rescinded their original votes and opted to hold another vote.”
Jeffrey Carpenter is a North Salem resident, father of two young children and former chief of police in Westchester County. In an email sent to the board, Carpenter wrote, “to those who voted against the SRO: I am flabbergasted by the ignorance. I am embarrassed for the district. I am saddened for our (my) kids.”
At the meeting, debate largely took place among Giamundo, Brown and Keenan, with Giamundo demanding that the district find a way to pay for the role. “We’re going to have to incorporate this into the regular budget,” he said. “I hope you’re not suggesting that you want to take the whole idea of an SRO off the table.”
Brown, who is a lieutenant in the North Salem Police Department, expressed that an SRO shouldn’t be funded at all. “The reason we shouldn’t fund it this way is because we shouldn’t fund it,” he said, noting the studies Keenan had referenced and adding that an FBI meeting he previously attended stressed that the key to safety is threat assessment.
According to Kieran O’Leary, director of public information for the Westchester County Department of Public Safety, SROs contribute to emergency planning and serve on threat assessment teams within the districts they serve.
Before moving to a roll call vote, Brown said, “In the end, it is about money. Can that $97,000 be spent on something that will make the children safer? That is really the question. Not whether this makes them safer. Is it the best way to make them safer? And the answer is clearly no.”
Trustees Giamundo and Fran Havard each voted yes to authorizing the funding. Brown, Keenan, Kurt Guldan and Deb D’Agostino voted no. Brian Lange was not present at the meeting.
Immediately following the vote Giamundo asked, “What is plan B?” Brown responded that the superintendent is still authorized to sign a contract. “If administration presents a way to pay for this, the only money to work with is the money that’s already in the budget.”
Freeston responded that the district is already $500,000 in debt, owing largely to increases in the costs of fuel, electricity and cost of living. “Our recommendation to the board is to take it out of fund balance because we don’t have it.”
In a phone call with the North Salem Post Friday, Brown said, “the board decided we do not want to take that money out of fund balance. The position has no funding. So nothing can happen as of this point.”