In October of 2014, members of the county budget committee released an outline to explain the need to raise property taxes from $2.02 to $2.50. At the time, over $700,000 a year was allocated to cover the recurring salaries of 13 school resource officers (SROs) hired in 2013 - salaries that for that first year had been taken out of funds from the old county hospital sale.
The goal moving forward was to have one in each school by 2020 at an annual expenditure by then of $3.3 million.
“The goal was to put them in every school,” Commissioner Chris Taylor said.
Since that year, 13 SROs have been added - five in 2014, two in 2015, one in 2016, and five were added this past spring. The current allocation for school officers - now 33 total, tops $2 million in the annual operating budget of the sheriff’s office.
The question remains - will county commissioners be able to meet their goal to have an SRO in every school by 2020? Currently 15 more officers and more than $1 million is needed to reach that goal.
Taylor, who gave the tax presentation to the public in January of 2015 citing the county’s goal, said he and others know the clock is ticking and they are working to address the issue.
“We know we are short - we address it each year with the foreknowledge it’s going to be done every year if it’s a good year. We are looking to do two to three in the next year and two to three again the next year.”
But Taylor says that alone won’t likely put an officer in every school by 2020.
The county had hoped to get some help when Gov. Bill Haslam announced he would provide some funding to local school security, but Taylor said that plan hasn’t been beneficial to Sumner County.
“They were going to pay $50 a day to have retired officers to be at school, but the problem was no one would sign up for $50 a day,” he said. “I can’t think of any of the big school systems that are using this.”
But an often controversial tax deferment plan the county had with the city of Hendersonville; allowing developers to build out the Streets of Indian Lake and increase property taxes on the new building over a period of time, rather than all at once, could be the saving grace the county needs to hire the additional SROs. The county is poised to start receiving more tax revenue from that project as soon as 2020, Taylor said.
“In 18-20 months that TIF (Tax Increment Financing) money will start pouring in - the last guestimate we got was about $2 million a year,” he said.
Taylor said those monies are being looked at to cover the cost of the additional 15 SROs.
“That’s what we are kind of hoping for -we want to look at different funding (for SROs) because we are not going to raise taxes.”
Press conference stressed need
Earlier this year in March, just a day after a loaded gun was found at Gallatin High School, a press conference was called with Sheriff Sonny Weatherford, Director of Schools Del Phillips and County Executive Anthony Holt asking publicly for the immediate funding of more SROs.
“We actually asked for 10 that night and 10 more by July 1 and then we ended up just getting five,” Weatherford said. “Do I think the commission could have done more - yes they could have, but I feel fortunate to have gotten the five.
“I feel the need is there because of the changing times. We are having more violence from kids in this day and time where we were not 20 years ago.”
Extra security measures in place
In addition to SROs Taylor, who has served in law enforcement for 26 years, said one of the biggest deterrents to anyone wanting to do harm in a school is a secure entrance - something he said the county has worked with the school system to provide.
“We have worked to get the schools a lot more hardened - every school now has a secure entrance,” Taylor said. “Once the kids are in school to the time they leave - the only way in is through that front door. The schools control who comes in and who goes out.
“The only way to gain entrance once the doors are closed is through the front office that can buzz you in.”
Another safety measure that has been stressed is the importance of students to relay any odd or threatening social media posts or activity to school officials, he said.
“They have done a lot with students really reaching out to the staff with anything that sets off a red flag and then staff has turned to the sheriff’s department,” Taylor said. “They have addressed more of that this year than ever before.”
As of this school year starting next month - three neighboring counties - Robertson, Wilson and Rutherford have all committed funds to having an SRO in each of its schools.
Weatherford said he hopes to get an SRO in the remaining schools in Sumner County before another incident occurs.
“It’s just a matter of making the schools as safe as we can so the kids can go in and study and don’t have to worry about someone wanting to come in and harm them,” he said. “I think the commission is trying to do the right thing, but sooner or later they are going to have to bite the bullet and spend the money.”