Board of Ed: infighting and finger pointing over a second SRO for North Salem schools
Last Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, which stretched on for over three hours, covered a lot of ground - a plea from the teachers union to address absenteeism at the middle school/high school, ongoing challenges in bringing a new water filtration system online, enrollment projections, declining test scores across math and reading - but one issue commanded the most air time and sparked the most emotionally charged comments from Board and community members alike: the question of funding a second school resource officer.
Board president Andrew Brown opened the meeting by delivering a prepared statement addressing the Board’s recent decision not to fund a second SRO for the current school year.
“Every item in a school budget should be researched, developed, planned for and funded,” he began. “At any place in that process the idea can be rejected. In June we passed a resolution that allowed the Superintendent of Schools to enter into a contract with the Westchester County Police for an additional SRO for our district. However, that resolution had no funding behind it. While we have nevertheless worked to fulfill the spirit of the resolution by developing a contract for an additional SRO for January through June, we still find ourselves without the funding.
“The present operating budget is running at a deficit of $500K. In light of that, the administration suggested we use the unassigned fund balance to fund this resolution. However, the Board voted 4-2 against using this funding for that purpose. Historically, the fund balance is used for emergency purposes; it is not to hire personnel.
“As things stand now, with the NSCSD central administration having reviewed the current operating budget and not finding any room to fund an additional SRO outside of the use of fund balance, we would need to find an alternative funding source, i.e. a grant, to fulfill the resolution passed in June. This means more than likely we will not be able to fund this resolution and we are unable to have an additional SRO this school year.
“The Board understands the value of a school resource officer as a constant presence who becomes a trusted adult. The role of an SRO can be, but is not limited to, a facilitator of anti-bullying conversations and a support for other safety initiatives like drug awareness and internet safety. This Board is extremely aware of how valuable Officer Armstrong is to our District as a mentor, as a role model, and as a positive presence in our schools. We recognize how well he fulfills this role and we thank him for his continued service.
“The Board recognizes that an SRO is only one facet of a security plan. We support a greater focus on mental health and well-being with our robust staff of mental health professionals and guidance counselors, as well as a continued dedication to developing and maintaining a Culture of Safety. We are currently developing a security bond that will address and improve the physical security of the buildings and grounds by repairing and upgrading doors, locks, barriers, cameras, and window screens. We will continue to explore these items and, as with an SRO, our discussion will include how to pay for them.
“The Board hears those that have come forth from the North Salem community to speak so publicly on this issue. We understand that this is coming from a place of love and a desire to protect our children from a chaotic world. As a Board in collaboration with the Superintendent of Schools, we work to balance the needs of the district in the hopes that we remain true to the mission of North Salem Central School District.”
Following Brown’s statement, the meeting was opened up to public comment. Over a dozen community members were in attendance, a turnout atypical of BOE meetings, which are often attended by just a few members of the public. Several parents spoke to advocate for the Board to find the funding for a second SRO.
“I ask that you reconsider the benefits that that position would immediately bring,” said Jeffrey Carpenter, a former police chief. “I would hate for one of you to have to look at a parent or a family member of a school employee in their face after a tragedy and say, ‘we did everything we could do to try and prevent this.’ Get the SRO first and then build other safety measures around him.”
Matt DeRose, in advocating for an additional SRO, said the officer, “would provide both campuses with an officer with exceptional qualities, professional emergency management skills and direct communications to additional resources when an incident occurs. Having one officer at each campus will expedite continuity and professionalism in an emergency response.”
DeRose added that there is a large group of community members who support adding an additional school resource officer. Following the last BOE meeting, several parents started a private Facebook group, “North Salem Parents For A School Resource Officer.” The group currently has 120 members.
There are, however, community members who oppose the addition of more armed officers on school campuses.
Christina Horzepa, a North Salem parent of two college-aged students, said during public comment, “I don’t know that the SRO is the best approach to prevent gun violence in schools,” citing the mental health component of mass school shootings committed by current or former students.
Research by the United States Government Accountability Office for school years 2009 - 2019 showed that in about half of school shootings the shooter was a student or former student. In the other half, the shooter had no relationship to the school, was a parent, teacher, or staff, or his or her relationship to the school was unknown, according to the data.
Horzepa urged Board members to “consider a comprehensive threat assessment system that will supplement or maybe even invalidate the need for an SRO.”
Gary Dearborn expressed that he felt a second SRO would “be just a check box and that the Board and school won’t work on more substantive issues that would improve security, like durable, fixed, locked doors on all the buildings, the counseling and the early warning systems.”
“By the time that the event is happening, it’s almost too late,” Dearborn added. “The investment and effort should be spent on heading it off beforehand.”
Mike Keenan, husband of Board of Ed trustee Brandy Keenan, encouraged community members to focus on debating the best methods for school safety, rather than attacking one another. “Everyone who has students in this school wants to keep our children safe,” Keenan said. “The assumption is made that if you have a different approach to making the school safe, that you somehow don’t care about school safety. While we can disagree on the methods, we should not disagree on the fact that we all care about our children, and we should raise the discourse.”
Despite Keenan’s plea, emotions continued to run high. Prior to the second public comment period–which nearly didn’t happen because Brown attempted to adjourn the meeting prematurely; his motion was voted down 4-3 by other Board members–Brown and Giamundo verbally sparred for several minutes about how to handle the lack of funding for an SRO.
Giamundo attempted to revisit the notion of whether the fund balance could be used for personnel. The Board’s opening statement said, “historically, the fund balance is used for emergency purposes; it is not to hire personnel.”
Legal counsel for the New York State School Boards Association indicate that a district may use its fund balance to pay for items that constitute what’s known as "ordinary contingent expenses," which may include "other items necessary to maintain the educational program, preserve property and ensure the health and safety of the students and staff." Employment of security guards is one of sixteen types of expenditures considered "ordinary contingent expenses" by the NYSSBA.
Brown told the North Salem Post that the Board's philosophy has always been focused on sustainable funding. "If you fund something with any type of one-time funding, it becomes how are you going to pay for it next year. It's basically just kicking the can down the road," he said. "If we finance the SRO with fund balance, what are we going to do next year? It's a giant amount to enter into the budget. If the administration thinks it's important, they will make that judgment and put it into the budget."
As Giamundo tried to further engage on the funding, Brown cut him off. “We had discussion on the matter, we closed the discussion, we had a vote, the matter is closed,” Brown said. Giamundo attempted to continue before Brown shut him down, saying, “you are no longer recognized.”
Brown quickly moved to adjourn the meeting, which would have pre-empted the second public comment period. Trustee Brian Lange interjected, noting the community members in attendance. “That’s incredibly disrespectful to these people,” Lange said.
As bickering continued among the trustees, one community member exclaimed, “you’re all a joke!”
Brown told the North Salem Post that his motion to adjourn was about keeping order. "I was simply trying to keep the meeting on track with the agenda and acting as a board rather than letting an individual run amok," he said. "It wasn't very pretty, I admit that. That was my attempt to regain control of the meeting."
North Salem High School student Eowyn Keenan (Eowyn's mother, Brandy Keenan, is a Board of Ed trustee) delivered the meeting’s final public comment. “It is actually more impactful for students to have teachers, staff and other outlets that they trust in order to report premeditated attacks that students have learned of. We know a lot more about each other than many would think,” Keenan said.
“Throwing together a panicked paycheck for an SRO will not calm the nerves of students like me,” Keenan went on. “The answer to the problem is not more guns, more muscle, more cameras, more figures that personify this fear. Let us not stoop to accusatory statements about the motives behind why people believe what they do and instead ask to hear from the students who walk into the battleground that many of you imagine our school to be.”