BY MARY KATE MURPHY, The Pilot
The Moore County Board of Education has pledged $560,000 toward expanding its police force.
At the prompting of county commissioners, the school board has spent the last few months devising a plan to provide full-time police coverage for each of its 22 campuses. School officials estimate that the resulting proposal — to expand Moore County Schools Police from 14 personnel to 27 — will add $1 million to the annual cost of running the department.
Last week, the commissioners endorsed the proposal in a joint meeting with the school board, but requested that the school board find a way to fund a mid-year implementation. That would likely have a more moderate effect on the current year’s budget because hiring new officers is expected to be a slow process.
Superintendent Tim Locklair on Monday recommended that the school board reassign nearly $563,000 in COVID-19 relief funds to the initial costs of the police expansion. That would cover the salaries of about nine officers.
The school board’s original plan to spend its federal money through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief program included about $600,000 to replace old kitchen equipment throughout the district. Locklair told the board on Tuesday that funding from the district’s child nutrition fund can cover that new equipment and then some.
Public school districts’ feeding programs — from ingredients to kitchen wares and wages for cafeteria workers — are largely funded through reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursements for each meal served.
The federal government increased those reimbursement rates during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow districts to provide free meals to all students.
When Moore County Schools’ end-of-year financials for the past school year came in last month, administrators learned that its child nutrition account had accumulated $4.2 million, or about $1.3 million more than projected.
“Based on fourth-quarter reporting, the amount that we now know we have in our cash reserves … it is my recommendation now that we reassign all of the ESSER funds that were connected to child nutrition capital projects,” said Locklair.
Board member David Hensley pointed out that the $563,000 could neatly cover the initial costs to equip 13 additional officers — vehicles, weapons, computers, uniforms and radios — and surmised that is the commissioners’ intent in asking the school board to allocate funding.
As the department hires more officers, the estimated $1 million in annual salaries and training costs will likely become an ongoing part of the district’s local budget that the county funds.
“Whatever’s on that equipment list, if that fits within the definition of ESSER … we could execute the funds now and then wait for the officers,” said Hensley.
Locklair said that coding the funding for salaries is most consistent with federal guidelines for the use of COVID-19 relief monies.
“I think it’s a strong argument within the ESSER framework to pay for the people, which is why I made the recommendation based on the requirements,” said Locklair.
Board member Robert Levy moved to reallocate the relief funding to classroom uses directly tied to improving academic performance rather than to expanding the schools’ police department. Levy was also a proponent of the district using surplus child nutrition funds to maintain universal no-cost meals.
“We should go back to the county commissioners and tell the county commissioners that you want and we want money for additional SROs, but we’re not going to sacrifice either the kids’ lunch money, or money which can go toward our ‘F’ rated schools, in order to accomplish that,” said Levy. “That should be new money from the county commissioners.”
The board voted down that motion 6-1. Hensley said that the commissioners’ request that the school board contribute to the initial cost of expanding its police department is a “reasonable” part of negotiations.
Vice-Chair Libby Carter said that she views a more robust police department as an indirect way of improving academic performance.
“It’s our school resource officers that see that children who have been truant are back in school. Students who are homebound or needing extra services … they transport school employees to make sure that these extra things are delivered,” she said. “They follow up with our guidance counselors with students who are having difficulties within a classroom or within a family, they do a lot of things that actually affect learning loss more than those of us sitting here will ever see.”
After Levy’s amendment failed, the board unanimously approved the proposed police expansion plan. The $560,000 will only be put toward the police department if the county commissioners agree to support the broader plan.
“I want to see our SROs expanded. My amendment only deals with where the money’s coming from,” Levy said. “We need these SROs. This is very, very, very important. But I just think that these ESSER funds need to go where I think Congress intended them to go.”
Freeing up COVID-19 relief funds to spend on police is only one part of the district’s plan to spend down its larger-than-expected child nutrition surplus. The state Department of Public Instruction recommends that districts keep between one and two months of expenses on hand in their nutrition funds, which comes out to between $800,000 and $1.6 million for Moore County Schools.
So administrators say that the board can now be more aggressive in finding ways to use that money. For the most part they can only be spent on cafeteria-related expenses.
But Locklair said that the state allows districts to shift up to 8 percent of child nutrition funds to their general operating budgets as a reimbursement of sorts for overhead costs associated with administering the school lunch program. Moore County Schools has not traditionally done that in the past, but plans to do so this year to round out a total $2.3 million spend-down in its child nutrition account.
The district is projected to spend $600,000 absorbing increased costs for food and labor this school year since the board voted to maintain the schools’ 2019 meal prices. Last month the board allocated $120,000 to buy a buffet line for West Pine Middle and commercial refrigerator-freezer for North Moore.
Contact Mary Kate Murphyat (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.