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Sheriff: ‘I want my deputies in our schools’

In a letter addressed to Beaufort County Board of Commissioners Chairman Frankie Waters, Sheriff Ernie Coleman offered details about the termination of the memorandum of understanding between the Sheriff’s Office and Beaufort County Schools, and said he is willing to meet with all parties involved “to discuss this issue and attempt to come to a solution that works for each entity.”

Through that memorandum, the Sheriff’s Office agrees to provide deputies to be used as school resource officers throughout the district.

BACKGROUND

On Nov. 13, 2020, Coleman sent a letter to Cheeseman informing him of his intent to terminate the memorandum within 90 days, citing operational challenges that he said stemmed from the county’s previous budget process.

In Beaufort County’s budget process for the fiscal year 2020-21, 102 positions were allocated to the Sheriff’s Office, five less than the previous fiscal year.

“The Sheriff’s Office made adjustments in their budget last year to adjust salaries for their personnel, and, at that time, they made a commitment to bring back a flat budget to the Board of Commissioners,” County Manager Brian Alligood said in October 2020. “In order to bring back a flat budget to commissioners this year, they had to take five positions and leave them unfilled and cut some capital funding related to vehicles.”

Alligood also mentioned a partial hiring freeze implemented among all county departments due to the potential financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Around that time, BCSO Chief Deputy Charlie Rose said there was still funding for those five positions in the Sheriff’s Office’s budget but unfreezing them would require a vote from the commissioners.

Coleman eventually issued a press release accusing the commissioners of defunding those five positions. He said the absence of those positions would cause “a shortage of deputies on the road taking emergency calls for the safety of the people.”

That led to Coleman’s decision regarding the memorandum with the schools.

THE LETTER

Claiming that his previous statements about the agreement termination had been misinterpreted by some people, Coleman said he never told BCS Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman that he wanted to remove all deputies from the schools; rather, he told Cheeseman that the district should “investigate alternative options for school security,” which is in line with what Cheeseman told the school board at its November meeting.

“I feel that my office and my deputies are the best option available for Beaufort County Schools, and I want my deputies in our schools,” Coleman wrote. “Unfortunately, my opinion is just an opinion without the support by way of funding from the school board through the Board of Commissioners.”

Coleman shared some more details as to why the memorandum termination was necessary. Coleman noted that, for as long as he can remember, the county’s SROs have been on duty not just when school is in session during the day, but also nights, weekends and holidays.

“When it became clear that we could be held to 102 positions instead of 107 positions we had to formulate a plan to take care of transports, and other law enforcement tasks, that have dramatically increased over the last few years,” Coleman wrote.

“We decided that the only plan that made sense was to occasionally use a School Resource Officer during times when school would be in session to complete a task.”

In order to do that, Coleman wrote, the MOU would need to be terminated or amended.

The memorandum is set to expire in June. Coleman said the question of whether or not the Sheriff’s Office would be willing to negotiate a new agreement with the school system depends on the budget process for the next fiscal year.

“…. We can negotiate another MOU once we know the level of funding and positions that we will have going into next year’s budget,” Coleman said. “We need a minimum of 107 positions to maintain the level of services that we had in last year’s budget.”

COMMISSIONERS REACT

Waters wasn’t at Monday’s Beaufort County Board of Commissioners meeting, but the board still discussed Coleman’s letter after it was read aloud.

“This letter is grossly inaccurate,” Commissioner Hood Richardson said. “It was the sheriff who defunded himself. He was the one who came in and said, if you let me spend money, (this was) two years ago, then I will bring you a budget that is flat with what the budget was this year. He chose to eliminate jobs, rather than to eliminate other wasteful expenses that he was carrying on with.”

Speaking about Coleman’s willingness to meet with BCS and the commissioners to discuss a potential solution, Stan Deatherage asked if such a meeting would be necessary, given that the school board is already exploring its other options for school security. The commissioners were waiting until Tuesday night’s school board meeting to see if the district would take any action on that topic.

No action was taken at that meeting, but Cheeseman did provide a glimpse of what to expect in the months to come.

The commissioners also discussed the implications that a switch from SROs to a private security force would have on funding.

“You don’t specifically fund the school board for SROs,” Alligood told the commissioners. “They get grant funding. That grant funding actually flows through us as well. But those revenues go to support the Sheriff’s Office positions. So you essentially already pay for that service.”

“So in that, either the school board would need to say, ‘we’ll eat that difference between (the termination) and July 1, or they would say ‘we want you to fund this now,” which would make the board decide whether you want to pull it from your fund balance and pay it up until July 1, or if you want to say we’re going to immediately call that back, and then let the ramifications be what the ramifications are.”