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County commits $1.95 million for 3-year SRO contract

The Beaufort County Commissioners have committed to providing additional funding for Beaufort County Schools’ contract with a third-party contractor for school resource officer services, and the school board is now moving forward with contract negotiations.

With a 4-3 vote in a joint meeting Tuesday night with the school board, the county commissioners approved Randy Walker’s motion to commit to an annual allocation of $650,000 to fund part of the school system’s proposed three-year contract with Allied Universal Security Services. The total annual cost of the contract is $1.08 million.

The $650,000 annual commitment is $91,000 more than the county has allocated in its current budget for the school system’s SRO services contract with the Sheriff’s Office, with vehicle costs included. Over a three-year period, that’s an increase of $273,000. Sheriff Ernie Coleman told Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman in November 2020 that he planned to terminate within 90 days the memorandum of understanding through which those SRO services are provided. The school system eventually sent out a request for proposals for a contractor to provide SRO services; the Sheriff’s Office didn’t submit a bid.

Commissioners Ed Booth, Hood Richardson and Stan Deatherage joined Walker in voting for the motion. Chairman Frankie Waters, Vice Chairman Jerry Langley and Commissioner John Rebholz voted against it.

THE CONTRACT

Under the proposed contract, which is subject to change based on feedback from attorneys on both sides, Allied Universal would take over SRO duties in July, at the start of the new fiscal year. Currently, with all personnel costs and benefits considered, the county provides $458,111 to partly fund the school system’s 13 SRO positions, and provides an additional $101,166 for vehicle costs. The rest of the positions are funded by a $433,000 grant that is written by the school system and administered by the county.

As of now, the annual cost of the Allied Universal contract is $1.08 million. That includes $863,350 to bring in 13 officers, all of whom will be duly sworn law enforcement officers. Twelve of them would serve as SROs at all but two of the county’s 14 schools, the exceptions being the Ed Tech Center, which is on Southside’s campus, and Beaufort County Early College High School. One officer would serve as chief supervisor.

Also included in the contract is an estimated $218,400 annually to pay for vehicles for the 13 officers. The contractor would provide those vehicles.

County Manager Brian Alligood asked if, as a cost-saving measure, the county could transfer its own vehicles over to the school system so the officers could use them.

“That’s a question I could go back and ask them,” Cheeseman responded. “But Allied Universal, as a third-party company, if we own the actual fleet and they’re driving in our vehicles, who covers their insurance and liability? So that’s something we’ve steered away from, to be quite honest.”

UNEXPECTED VOTE

The intended purpose of Tuesday’s meeting was to discuss funding for the new contract, but that changed when Walker made his motion two minutes into the meeting.

Rebholz asked Walker if he understood the increase between what the county contributes to the SRO funding now and what it would contribute if Walker’s motion passed.

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to do what we’re doing now,” Walker responded.

Waters emphasized that the purpose of the meeting was for the two boards to discuss SRO funding, not for the commissioners to make a final decision. He said he would oppose the motion because of that.

“This is just moving too fast,” Waters said. “We could have a special called meeting on Friday or Monday to confirm the funding part, but his motion that’s now on the floor I will oppose, because that’s an increase in the amount of money that the county is currently spending.”
Langley said he didn’t want to interfere with the school board’s intentions, and added that he’s “just not in a position to vote” for the increased allocation.

‘ACCOUNTABILITY, OWNERSHIP AND QUALITY’

Waters said the SRO funding question is one of the most important decisions he’s faced as a commissioner.

“I live in a remote area of this county — very remote,” Waters said. “I don’t live inside the city limits of Washington. So I don’t have backup law enforcement like you guys that live within the city limits. … If something happens in Aurora in July or August, guess what’s going to happen? We’re doing away with 13 sworn deputies that operate within this county.”

“I solidly disagree with what you’re trying to say,” Richardson responded. “It’s not true. You’re distorting the facts.”

After hearing further concerns from Waters, Cheeseman reiterated two major points that the school board has referenced over the past several months: they didn’t ask to be put in a situation where they’re looking for school security alternatives, but it is crucial that they do secure one.

“My job is to protect children and adults within (the schools),” Cheeseman said. “And I get what you’re saying, but right now there’s a sense of urgency to make sure that our children and adults in our community who come in and out of these schools are protected. And I understand your concern about where you live.

“One question you never want to have to answer is why — why a school was not covered,” Cheeseman continued.  “Ask Columbine, ask Sandy Hook, ask Parkland. You don’t want that question either.”

Waters asked if the school board believes that the SROs provided by the contractor would be present “every minute of every day” at the 12 schools.

“I think there’s going to be accountability, ownership and quality,” Board of Education Vice Chairman Michael Bilbro said. “Better than what we’ve gotten so far, I can tell you that.”

NEXT STEPS

Cheeseman said the school system’s attorney reviewed the proposed contract and provided some feedback, which will be shared with the school board and Allied Universal’s legal team. The school board will discuss that feedback in a special called meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday night at the BCS Professional Development Center, located at 845 N. Pierce St. in Washington.

Cheeseman hopes to have a final draft submitted for the school board’s approval next month.