School board to increase security|Armed officers will be stationed in meeting room

Published 7:52 pm Thursday, January 20, 2011

Contributing Writer

Facing tightening budgets and an increasingly hostile national political climate, members of the Beaufort County Board of Education say it’s time to increase security at the board’s monthly meetings.
Beginning Monday night, an armed law-enforcement officer chosen from the ranks of policemen and sheriff’s deputies who patrol the county’s schools, will attend school-board meetings and be stationed in the board’s meeting room, school officials said.
That step was recently presented to a school-board committee that oversees personnel and curriculum matters.
“I think it’s important that the security guard is here, that he’s here in the room looking at the audience,” said school board Chairman Robert Belcher.
The decision was prompted, in part, by an attack in December on a school board in Panama City, Fla., according to Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Don Phipps.
According to reports at the time, Clay Duke, 56, an ex-convict, held the school board hostage before killing himself. Duke shot himself after firing at school-board members during their meeting. No one else was hurt. Before opening fire, he painted a red V on a wall and talked about his wife being fired.
“It causes us all to pause and think about where we are,” Phipps told one school board committee.
The armed law-enforcement officers who patrol the county’s schools are expected to be used on a rotating basis and will be given compensatory time off for the time that they attend school-board meetings, Phipps said.
The increased security is not expected to cost the school system additional money, he said.
Washington police and Beaufort County sheriff’s officials have approved the move, Phipps said.
Other area school boards are taking similar measures.
The local school board is likely to face some difficult decisions in the coming months as school leaders begin to prepare the system’s 2011-2012 budget, even as the state Legislature deals with an estimated $3.7 billion revenue shortfall in the North Carolina’s budget.
Up to now, the local school board, unlike many in the state, has been able to meet budget reductions through retirements and attrition rather than job cuts.
But local school leaders fear that with the 2011-2012 budget, some employees will lose their jobs.
North Carolina’s education leaders late last year told Beaufort County public schools to prepare for at least $3.1 million in cuts — including the loss of some 58 positions — in next year’s budget.
The Office of State Budget and Management required government agencies to identify the consequences of budget cuts of five, 10 and 15 percent to help cover a shortfall in the state budget that could amount to more than $3 billion. Education agencies were told to prepare for budget cuts of 5 percent and 10 percent.
With a 5 percent budget reduction, Beaufort County Schools would face cuts of $3.1 million, including the loss of 21 classroom teaching positions, four instructional support positions, 33 teacher assistant positions and cuts in funding for assistant principals and career and technical education.
With a 10 percent budget reduction, the county’s public schools would face cuts of $4.5 million, including the loss of 26 classroom teaching positions, four instructional support positions, 61 teacher assistant positions and cuts in funding for assistant principals and career and technical education.
To prepare for these cuts, a hiring freeze is scheduled to go into effect Monday — the start of second semester — that stipulates that all of the school system’s vacant faculty and staff positions will be frozen. It also stipulates that no new employees will be hired unless “deemed necessary by the superintendent or by state and federal regulations.”
The school board on Monday is expected to approve changes in its policy governing reductions in force for its licensed employees.
Earlier this month, board members asked Phipps to e-mail copies of the new policy to all staff members covered by the policy to ensure that all affected staff members were aware of the changes.
“We need to be sure that all our staff knows about this policy,” said board member Eltha S. Booth.
Belcher agreed.
“It may actually have to be used,” he said.