UPDATED: Council to consider grant to help pay for school resource officer salaries

School District Superintendent Dr. John L. Colbert speaks during the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (Fayetteville Government Channel)
UPDATE 5/2/23: The council voted 7-1 to approve this proposal during the May 2 City Council meeting.

FAYETTEVILLE — A proposal that would help pay the salaries of new school resource officers is up for discussion this week.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider whether to apply for a $250,000 COPS Hiring Program matching grant for two new officers that would begin working in 2024.

The new officers are part of a plan to add two new SROs every year until each school in the Fayetteville Public Schools district has a full-time officer on duty. The plan was unanimously approved by the council last summer after the state recommended all public schools in Arkansas have at least one officer.

The city currently has six school resource officers assigned to the district, which operates 15 campuses and later this year will open a new middle school in west Fayetteville.

In planning for the new officers, Police Chief Mike Reynolds said he found a grant program that could help pay the salaries of the two new officers over a four-year period. If awarded, the grant would provide a maximum of $125,000 per officer for three years. For the fourth year, the grant would require the officers to be fully funded by the city.

The city shares the cost of paying for school resource officers with the district, based proportionately on how many days per year the officers are working inside the schools.

Reynolds said while the estimated total cost for the two officers over four years is $746,100, the city’s cost would be $156,390 after factoring in the $250,000 grant and the district’s share of $339,710. He said the officers are expected to be on duty with the district for 178 days each year. The remaining 82 days of the officers’ work time would be dedicated solely to the city.

Mass killings on a record pace

Reynolds said with a major increase in mass shootings across the country, he’s received a lot of calls from parents requesting the department add more resource officers to the city’s schools.

The U.S. is on a record pace for mass shootings so far this year. The mass killings have occurred in a variety of places, including a Nashville school, a Kentucky bank, and a Southern California dance hall. Last week’s carnage in Texas left five more people dead, and four others were found shot to death in an RV in California over the weekend.

As of Tuesday, the shootings have taken 97 lives in 19 mass killings over a 122-day period, exceeding the record set in 2009 when 93 people were killed in 17 incidents by the end of April.

Reynolds said parents are familiar with the council’s intent to add two new officers each year, but lately they’ve been asking how the city can expedite the process.

“Unfortunately, I just don’t have the capacity to do that at this time,” he said.

Reynold said the council’s unanimous decision last August is helpful in planning for the future, especially when it comes to seeking out grants to help pay officer salaries, but without further funding, the department must stay the course in adding two officers each year.

The council’s plan comes with support from the School District.

Superintendent Dr. John L. Colbert last year pleaded council members to approve the proposal to begin adding more officers in local schools.

Colbert said he knew it was a controversial subject, but Fayetteville’s police department is unlike some cities where officers are often criticized for their behavior, especially toward minorities. Officers in Fayetteville, he said, have a reputation for being collaborative and supportive of all residents.

“I know what we stand for here,” Colbert said. “We are different and we are special.”

Debate over a debate

The proposal to apply for the grant was originally on the City Council’s consent agenda, meaning it wasn’t expected to be debated, but Councilmember Sarah Moore requested it be removed so a discussion could take place.

“There’s been a lot of conversation in the community, especially since 2020 in regard to these programs,” said Moore. “So because there’s a lot of community interest and a matching investment the city would be making, I would like to ask that this be pulled over to new business so the community has an opportunity to make comment before approval.”

Moore was elected to the council in November, and was therefor not one of the eight who voted in favor of adding new officers. She also requested to pull from consent a resolution to provide vehicles for SROs.

Councilmember Scott Berna, who is also new to the council this year, said since the item was placed on the agenda, the emails he’s received from constituents have been overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. He told Moore she’s well within her rights to request a discussion, but he likely won’t be swayed in his support.

“This council has made itself pretty clear that they want to support this, and now the chief has gone out and found grants to help pay for it,” said Berna. “If (a discussion) is what you want, I’ll sit here and listen to it, but I’m not sure what the debate is.”