Neighborhood watch program (copy)

Officer Garth Linkey is the school resource officer at JRE and RCMS.

Payson faces a tight deadline to apply for state money to either continue funding for a police officer on campus or add to its pool of almost overwhelmed school counselors.

After months of delay, the Arizona State Board of Education established rules for districts to apply for more school counselors, school social workers and School Resource Officers (SROs) after the Legislature added $20 million to the $12 million School Safety Program grant, Susan Campbell, PUSD representative, indicated in a presentation to the board.

The extra money came in the wake of studies showing that Arizona schools on average have 1 counselor for every 930 students. The national average is 1 for each 450 students, and the recommended ratio is one for every 250 students.

Currently, Payson has one school resource officer funded by the grant. The district also has two counselors at the high school and one counselor at the middle school, paid for by the general fund. The district has about 2,300 students — close to the national average and better than the state average.

Studies show that having enough counselors boosts test scores as well as graduation and college attendance rates — all well below the national average in Arizona. Teachers and administrators say they also desperately need more counselors to deal with the complex emotional and social problems children bring to school these days, including a rising teen suicide rate.

The extra money from the state will increase funding for counselors enough to lower the student/counselor ratio to about 750 to one — still far above the national average.

Districts must submit their grant requests between Sept. 16 and Sept. 27 to win funding for even existing positions for the next three-year grant cycle starting as early as January 2020 and no later than August 2020. Rim Country Middle School and Julia Randall Elementary school share one school resource officer and are two of 114 schools statewide funded by the program. Another 87 schools are on a waiting list. Arizona has about 1,700 traditional public schools and 500 public charter schools, which are eligible to apply for the program.

“The applications are data driven and complex,” Grants Coordinator Susan Campbell told the school board this week. “There are a lot of pieces to putting this together.”

Currently, the district gets $99,000 annually from the state for each year of the three-year funding cycle. The grant this year pays for the salary and benefits for the SRO, some supplies and training travel costs.

Police officer compensation has become increasingly expensive because of the underfunding of the statewide retirement system for police officers and firefighters because of benefit changes and investment losses during the recession. Police departments pay the officer’s salary, benefits and retirement that can be as much as 100 percent of the salary amount. The School Safety Program grant is written to include these costs.

Years ago, the district had an SRO at the high school. SROs spend most of their time on campus and focuses on education more than law enforcement, although they can help deal with school threats or drug issues. They can answer other, off-campus calls in emergencies and takes on regular patrol duties when school’s not in session.

The tight deadlines and limited funding poses a tough choice for the district when it comes to deciding how to prioritize the application.

The state Department of Education has said districts that already have a school resource officer will get at least one position funded. Asking for an extension of funding for the single police officer would be pretty much a sure thing. However, the district would be taking a chance if it decided to make its first priority another counselor or social worker instead of continuing the SRO position.

Campbell said the district can definitely continue the current SRO position, but might have trouble finding a credentialed counselor between January and August, given the statewide shortage and the likely scramble by districts to hire and get signed contracts, which the grant requires.

She said she has no idea whether the district could qualify for a second position — perhaps a counselor or social worker or even another officer. The amount and quality of applications and funding available will determine the awarding of additional positions.

This year’s grant is fully funded for the 114 schools already in the program. The September application starts a new three-year cycle for both new and existing positions.

The school board had lots of questions — but faced mostly hard choices on a tight deadline.

“Which school’s the better place for an officer?” asked board member Joanne Conlin.

Rim Country Middle School Principal Jennifer White replied, “The theory of the grant is that it’s not punitive — it’s educational, so they want to get to them earlier.”

That said, Payson High School Principal Jeff Simon said he’d love to have an officer on campus to build relationships with his students.

On the other hand, Payson Elementary School Principal Michelle May said she desperately needs a counselor — but doesn’t need a police officer at all. “We’ve had some situations where we’ve had to call the police, but the children are too young to even talk to an officer. We really don’t have any resources at all. We are struggling. We could really use the support of a counselor or a social worker for our youngest children.”

Campbell noted that if the district asks for a counselor, the grant requires a community partner — like Community Bridges or Southwest Behavioral. That presents another difficulty in slamming together an application before Sept. 27.

“Community Bridges deals with drug issues and Southwest Behavioral deals with behavior issues and mental health — we would definitely need both,” said Campbell.

Ultimately, Superintendent Stan Rentz suggested he convene the district’s leadership team to settle on the top priorities for the grant, then report to the board.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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