Price of Protection: A look at Tri-State schools’ safety budgets

School districts across the Tri-State have safety plans implemented in the event of a tragedy, but the funds to protect students vary with each district.
Published: Apr. 17, 2023 at 5:34 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - School districts across the Tri-State have safety plans implemented in the event of a tragedy, but the funds to protect students vary with each district.

School districts are responsible for developing and implementing their own safety plans to keep their children safe.

School resource officers are often a part of those safety plans, but who absorbs the cost of those services varies drastically between districts. Several districts pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, while others are provided those services for free by local law enforcement.

FOX19 NOW Investigates received copies of the memorandum of understanding (MOU), a contract or agreement, between 76 school districts and police departments across Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

The MOU outlines everything from an officer’s responsibilities and limitations within the halls of a school to the cost a district is expected to absorb. What districts pay varies greatly and we found districts pay for an SRO’s full salary, benefits, uniform, vehicle, and equipment.

Mason City Schools’ agreement with the City of Mason says the district is getting three SROs at $120,000 per officer. While the contract is still active, the 2018 agreement does not accurately reflect the resources they are allocating to the district, the city said.

“We rolled everything into those costs - that’s salary, that’s insurance, that’s pension, and those numbers may sound high, they haven’t been updated for, well since [...] 2018,” City Manager Eric Hansen said.

Hansen tells FOX19 NOW the MOU is outdated, and the police department provides more resources than the 2018 contract outlines, but the cost to the district has not changed. Mason City Schools is paying $650,000 to the city each year to be part of its campus safety program.

Middletown City Schools pays almost the same amount each year as the Mason School District.

For years, the city provided officers to the school district for the cost of 75% of an officer’s salary. In the fall, the city and school district signed a new agreement that added three full-time officers to patrol the halls of the school. Each officer cost the district $112,495 per year.

“They came, and they approached me, and they said, ‘Look, we would like to fund three school resource officers fully and then also give them a stipend for a vehicle,” Middletown Police Chief David Birk explained. “I said, ‘I couldn’t pass that up as the chief.’”

However, some school districts were provided at least one SRO at no cost: Cincinnati Public Schools, Princeton City Schools, Forest Hills School District, Wilmington City Schools, Fort Thomas Independent Schools and Mason County (Kentucky) Public Schools.

“There are a lot of benefits for the city,” City Manager Matt Kremer said. “When we do have cases involving students or students’ families that SRO is very familiar with, they get to know the students. It really helps with investigations when we have missing children, when we have runaways, even domestics - that SRO is contacted a lot so we can kind of understand the family dynamics and really help the family and help the student a lot better.”

Beyond their bill rate

Of the 76 districts FOX19 NOW received records from, 18 are asked to pay for additional line items such as a police cruiser, fuel, uniforms, equipment, training, cell phones and/or computers.

The costs for those extra line items can add up quickly.

In Lakota Local Schools’ MOU with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, the school pays the annual cost for vehicles (up to $55,000), $8,300 for uniforms, $8,000 for training, $10,000 for equipment, and $3,708 annually for computers.

On the other hand, Little Miami Schools pays the full acquisition cost of a cruiser in their agreement with Hamilton Township police, and Middletown City Schools pays $8,000 per full-time officer to have a cruiser on campus.

“Cost of a cruiser now is $37,000 without being fitted with the NDTs and everything,” Birk said. “Those officers take those cars home - they take them up there if they have to get called in the middle of the night for something. They assist us, and they assist midnight officers, 3-11 officers because they know the students.”

Mason City Schools MOU has an annual fee of $120,000 for additional resources and a $50,000 equipment fee that covers the cost of canines, cruisers, magnetometers, or other mobile screening devices.

“That $50,000 is invested in several ways,” Mason City Schools Superintendent Jonathan Cooper said. “There are other proactive security measures that are put in place in our buildings that we discuss with the police. It’s a confidential conversation about safety in general, so we don’t just publish everything we’re doing with safety. They have things they’ll bring to us and say we would like to have this kind of [...] training or support, or there may be safety pieces that we’re not familiar with because there are educators that they need to have in place, so their response time can be very quick and appropriate.”

The district has a unique situation where almost all of its campuses are within eyesight of the police station. So why is a vehicle fee necessary for buildings if officers are able to walk to them?

“The high school’s right there, the middle school’s down there, [there are] two other schools down there, and MECC (Mason Early Childhood Center) is 3-miles away,” Hansen said. “If we want to maximize the time an officer is available to the school, I don’t want to walk them over there. I want a cruiser that’s at the school because that’s its own deterrent.”

What districts with a free SRO spend their money on

Fort Thomas Independent Schools is one of the six districts in the area that are provided at least one SRO at no cost to the district. The schools do not pay the city a dime for those services, and they say it has freed up money to approach student safety in different ways.

“We’ve made significant investments in expanding the number of counselors that we have at each of our schools - of making sure that our facilities have improved in terms of the safety within, safety vestibules, doors, installation of cameras and training of our staff,” Fort Thomas Superintendent Brian Robinson said.

While the schools have savings and are able to invest in other safety measures, the City of Fort Thomas Police Department sees a benefit in this service, making this agreement valuable to them beyond dollars and some change.

“There are a lot of benefits for the city,” City Manager Matt Kremer said. “When we do have cases involving students or students’ families, that SRO is very familiar with the students - they get to know the students. It really helps with investigations when we have missing children, when we have runaways, even domestics that SRO is contacted a lot so we can kind of understand the family dynamics and really help the family and help the student a lot better so there’s a lot of benefits to having our own office in the schools when it comes to things like that.”

Campus safety officer vs. school resource officer

The City of Mason’s MOU with Mason City Schools is unique because the program goes beyond the halls of the schools. The city says the school district is thinking about investing in a campus safety program instead of hiring an hourly SRO.

“It’s not a transactional thing. It is a district. It is a relationship. It is a whole different concept than the school resource officer,” Hansen explained.

The “campus” includes the school buildings, the city building, the Mason Municipal Court, a park, the community center, and several private businesses.

“The risks to the schools, to the community center, to a community don’t just start at the school day or end at the school day or end at the campus,” Hansen said. “Some of these kids that may be struggling or having conflicts come over to the community center, go over to the parks, some of them end up in court, some of them may be having trouble at home that other officers are dealing with so they know that they may be struggling with the school day. It’s that communication that goes on outside of school hours, and that district really allows you to have kind of a consistent conduit throughout the community.”

The city estimates the cost of policing that district at about $1,500,000, and the schools will pay $650,000 annually into the campus safety program. We’re told private businesses within the district buy in via the rent they pay. The parks and community center’s ‘buy-in’ is covered by the city’s financial contribution to their program.

“In our language, the general fund that pays for police also pays for the parks. The city is investing heavily in the campus safety program. The schools then buy into it, so we’re able to expand it,” Hansen said.

Reinvesting back SRO fees

School resource officer programs can be costly, with some costing districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, there have been benefits that go beyond the protection of students.

While the City of Mason boasts one of the more expensive per SRO contracts in our area, their campus safety program features a mentoring program that helps Mason High School graduates find jobs within the city to start a career after graduation.

The City of Middletown says they have invested in summer programs for the kids, a youth police academy, and they may soon add another program for students.

“We’ll do safety town, we’re also starting a youth police academy for the older high school kids that are going off to college or wanting to get into the workforce,” Middletown Officer and SRO Marco Caito said.

“Another SRO, Jason Deaton, has talked about possibly offering a youth program for lacrosse and some other programs. I’m currently talking with some other community members about bringing a youth boxing program to town,” the Middletown chief said.

Free is not for all

While some districts enjoy the perks of an SRO at no cost, it is a model that not every city and police department is able to provide due to staffing or financial restrictions.

“We would not be able to have the program without the assistance of the schools,” Middletown Police Chief David Birk said. “We can apply for grants, but a lot of the grants require not to have a program established already, so it’s usually the beginning of a school district program, school resource officer program.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed two-year budget includes money for school districts to either start or expand their school resource officer programs.

While grants may help launch an SRO program, they often cover only a portion of the expenses which leaves districts or cities to cover the rest of the bill.

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