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Future of campus police uncertain

"The job of cop on campus at Oak Harbor High School may be in jeopardy next year unless the city and school district can work out a new way to pay for it. Police, school district officials and campus neighbors have praised the school resource officer program, which has stationed a full-time, uniformed Oak Harbor police officer at the 1,800-student high school for the past three years. The presence of the officer on campus has helped head off potential problems and has allowed the district to handle more incidents at the scene without having to call the police department, officials say.A community policing grant has paid for the majority of the cost. That amounts to about $71,000 per year including salary, benefits, training, equipment and overtime. Up until now, the federal government has paid 90 percent of the total cost, with the Oak Harbor Police Department and the school district sharing the remaining 10 percent - about $9,000 per year apiece.When they initially accepted the grant, the police department agreed to keep the program going for at least one more year after the three-year grant money ran out. But then came Initiative 695 last November, which cut about $780,000 from the Oak Harbor city budget.As a result, the city proposed that the school district pick up more of the cost of the campus officer - a lot more.According to Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte, the city's initial proposal would cost the district an additional $40,000 per year. The city would kick in about $22,000.Oak Harbor Police Chief Tony Barge said it's not an unreasonable request, since the primary beneficiary of the program is the school district. He said other school districts he surveyed were contributing about 75 percent of the cost of an on-campus officer.When we first initiated it we weren't thinking about 695, Barge said. I'm looking for a huge commitment on the part of the school board if the city can't come up with the necessary funds to go forward with it.Schulte doesn't question the value of the program, but in a district which recently lost a maintenance and operations levy election, he wonders if it's the best use of school funding.I have a whole line of people with ideas on what we need in the way of safety and security, he said. Schulte explained that the district is expecting a one-year safety and security grant from the state worth $59,000 for the next school year. He said the grant could be used to pay for the campus officer, but it could just as easily be used to purchase other items including video security systems, more after-school security staff or traffic directors for busy school parking lots.It's only a one-year appropriation. Cameras will still be here at the end of the year. A person won't, said Schulte.Members of the Oak Harbor School Board said Monday night that the 75 percent/25 percent proposal would be too much for the district to handle. Board member Jim Slowik said he was disappointed in the city council, which has often talked about the need for strong school support.When we see city councilmen running on promises we want to see them put money where their mouth is, he said. Interim City Supervisor Doug Merriman told the board that a negotiated settlement was still possible.The 75 percent was just the first dart we threw, he said. When asked whether the city might settle for a 50 percent contribution year-round, Merriman said that might be fine. That would mean a cost of about $35,500 per year for each.No matter what the outcome of negotiations, both sides will still have to find the money somewhere in their tight budgets in order to keep the program going into the next school year. Plans for funding the resource officer position beyond that point are hazy at best.What are we going to do in the future? asked Barge. I'm going to trust Mr. Merriman to continue to find funds. You can reach News-Times reporter Chris Douthitt at cdouthitt@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611."

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