The Hollister School District (HSD) Board of Trustees has decided to defund two school resource officers (SRO) in the coming school year for a potential savings of approximately $230,000, according to Board President Rob Bernosky.
HSD Superintendent Diego Ochoa said the move is not political and has nothing to do with the growing movement in parts of the nation to defund police departments, including SRO programs. In June, the Oakland school board voted unanimously to eliminate its 67-member SRO unit. Ochoa said the local decision was all about the district’s declining budget.
“We’re facing a very challenging budget situation,” Ochoa said. “We’re expecting to have billions of dollars in deferrals for education funding for this upcoming school year. Every district in the county is expecting close to an 8% reduction in funding. For our district that exceeds $5 million.”
He continued, “We’ve valued the partnership we’ve had [with HPD] and it’s a difficult decision that is based on the funding challenges we are facing. The idea of opening schools with the increased costs of sanitation and COVID-related health measures is forcing us to make substantial reductions.”
Ochoa said other cost-cutting measures include laying off 30 aides, as well as eliminating seven administrative positions. He said the remaining administrators, including himself, have agreed to take five unpaid furlough days for each of the next two years.
“It’s likely the budget situation will be worse in school year 21-22 than 20-21,” he said, “because our budget this year is based on a somewhat normal July through the first two weeks of March that were pretty normal. Our new budget for 21-22 will be based on this terrible coronavirus economy we’re experiencing.”
He added, “Every reduction we make this year saves us from having to make a more severe reduction the following year. That’s the message I’m sharing with the board that’s driving the decisions to make reductions now.”
Ochoa said the board approved the budget on June 23, which authorized the elimination of the SRO program. He said he would be sending a letter to the city of Hollister concerning the board’s decision. He said he could not project when the situation might improve.
“We’re planning for all scenarios. If the public health situation worsens or improves, we have plans in place. We’re definitely planning for 21-22 that there may be more layoffs.”
Bernosky has questioned funding the SRO program for at least two years, and because of COVID-19’s effect on the economy, he’s supporting the move to eliminate the program.
“This year alone, we’re deficit spending $2,262,000,” he said. “These officers cost us $235,000. You’ve got to ask, ‘what are we getting for that money?’ First of all, the kids aren’t in school right now and when they are in the fall they’ll only be on school grounds four days a week and it will be an unreal environment. A lot of the issues we had before we probably are not going to have because of social distancing.”
He said because of students’ rights, SROs don’t do much traditional police work, but concentrate primarily on teaching the anti-gang curriculum.
“We’ve had two presentations to our board and I’ve been critical of it because it’s an expensive program and we’re not getting the desired effect I want, which is no drugs on our campuses,” Bernosky said. “We’re supplementing the police budget in order to have what we wished were dedicated officers who could exercise their police powers. Absent in being able to do that, we could use that money to hire more school counselors and on other things to intervene in children’s lives to show them a better way, and perhaps they won’t run into law enforcement issues later on.”
Diane Ortiz, executive director of Youth Alliance, said the issue is about creating a safe and inclusive school climate by responding to the needs of students.
“We have come to realize this [SRO program] is not the best way to go about prioritizing our resources and there are other options that will create a more just, equitable school climate for all of our students,” she said. “We as a society have had to come to terms with the overuse of policing in all manner of responses to community needs, including mental health crisis and school discipline issues. If you were to look at the level of infractions in which a law enforcement officer is used, especially at K-8 schools, it’s for very low-level, common school discipline issues. It’s not gang-related or violent crimes.”
Interim Hollister Police Chief Carlos Reynoso told BenitoLink the SRO program was originally set up to enhance school safety. He explained that the agreement was for three years, which worked out to approximately $75,000 per officer each year, for a total of $450,000. He said the city paid half of the cost, in addition to the vehicle, equipment and training for the officers.
“For years, we have strived to resolve problems in partnership with the community and reduce the violence, gang crime, drug activity and other important problems identified by the school community,” he said, adding that the two officers who are assigned the “school beat” were there for increased traffic enforcement around the schools and to respond to reported crimes on campuses.
“However, that was only a small part of what they were assigned to do,” Reynoso said. “Our officers were facilitators and instructors of the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program and supported ongoing bullying prevention programs.”
At the request of school principals, Reynoso said the officers also attended suspension and expulsion hearings and conducted training for staff on issues such as gang member recognition, drug recognition, internet and social media safety, and other school safety issues as requested by school staff.
“One of the most important things about our officers being at the schools has always been the interaction of our officers with the students in our community,” he said. “That accessibility, that connection and that presence that our officers have with our students is extremely essential. These kids can approach our officers and realize they are human and not just a uniform. Our officers are fathers and mothers, they care about the student’s safety and they care about their future.”
Reynoso continued, “I believe, now more than ever, police and schools should strive to increase our partnerships because, ultimately, we have the same goals. We want what is best for our students, to have them live the best life possible with good choices and growing up in a safe and welcoming environment.”
He recognized the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the partnership.
“In light of the severe cuts being made by the HSD, it is understandable that these decisions have been made,” Reynoso said. “Our department, which also has had a hiring freeze and a reduction of our budget, will now have to determine how to overcome the reductions of funding for the officers previously assigned as school resource officers. They will continue to be assigned as regular patrol officers for now.”
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