After the city forced the school district’s hand by pulling more than $2.3 million in funding for the program, beginning next school year, school resource officers will likely be paid for with district funds for the first time in years.
For several years previously, the city had annually fully funded the more than $3 million program, embedding police officers in schools as a resource and law enforcement presence. But starting in July, under a change initiated by Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, the city is paying for just 25% of the program, unless changes are made to the city’s budget.
Despite apparent widespread support of the program from the school board, district and many Assembly members, prior to a school board meeting Tuesday, some officials began circulating rumors that the board was considering not funding the program.
In a Facebook post Tuesday, Assembly member Jamie Allard wrote that “rumor has it tonight some school members are going to vote to defund the SRO’s.” A senior school district official sent an email asking principals to lobby the board to sustain it.
The email warned that board members would likely move to replace the school resource officer program with mental health professionals. That motion that did not materialize on Tuesday and the school board president and other members say they hadn’t discussed such a plan.
In an unusual scene at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Bronson showed up to testify in favor of school resource officers, inferring that the board was about to consider not funding the program. He was joined by municipal manager Amy Demboski, Police Chief Michael Kerle, Allard and two school resource officers sitting in the front rows.
“History will not treat us, as public servants, well if we defund this program,” Bronson told the school board.
“If we defund this program, something’s going to happen, eventually it’s going to happen. We’ve had some close calls that were averted by the school resource officers,” the mayor said.
Pressed by a Daily News reporter after he spoke at the meeting, Bronson wouldn’t say specifically what led him to believe the board was considering such a move. He said he had heard it from “an excellent source.”
In an interview, school board president Margo Bellamy said she was surprised by the concern over replacing SROs with mental health professionals, as was implied in the school district email.
“As the board chair, I have not engaged in those discussions. We have not had those discussions. We have our discussions publicly, not behind the scenes,” Bellamy said.
Member Pat Higgins did later propose a motion to remove the line-item funding for the SRO program. The motion was not seconded, and it failed.
Higgins said his motion would not have cut the program. It would have set aside the money into a reserve account that could be used to fund the officers in July, at the start of the new budget if needed. In the meantime, the district could wait and see if the Assembly finds more city funding, he said.
“Nobody wants to say no to the SROs; they’ve been a very important resource in schools,” Higgins said.
“I was just trying to send a message,” Higgins said. Setting the money aside rather than earmarking it for the program would give the city time to “step up to the plate” and leave the money available for other uses if the city pays, he said.
The district will have to make sacrifices to other areas “if we’re going to be forced into paying for this from here on out,” he said.
The board ultimately passed its budget on a 6 to 1 vote, which included a provision to fund three-quarters of the school resource officer program for the next school year. Throughout the night, several school board members and district officials spoke in favor of the school resource officer program.
The board also approved a $5 million amendment to use remaining emergency grant funds for student mental health support. That wasn’t in place of school resource officer funding.
Mayor calls school district paying for SROs “more equitable”
Since 2015, the city, not the school district, has paid for the school resource officer program, a partnership between the district and the Anchorage Police Department.
In his city budget proposal last fall, Bronson slashed city funding for the program, proposing that the district reimburse 75% of the costs of the program to the city, shifting about $2.3 million in costs to the district.
In an interview at the school board meeting, Bronson said that his administration had asked that the district essentially pay for SROs during the school year, while the city pays during the summer months, which he said is “more equitable.”
Because the school district and city run on different budget cycles, the mayor’s proposal to cut funding beginning in January would have left a several-month funding gap this school year.
The Anchorage Assembly in November voted to restore $1.28 million in city funding for the program — enough to get through the end of this school year — when it approved the 2022 city budget. Bronson then vetoed that funding, but the Assembly overruled Bronson with a veto override vote.
“Not once, but twice, (the mayor) attempted to defund this program and the Assembly restored it,” Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, co-chair of the budget and finance committee, said.
In a social media post last fall, Bronson denied attempting to cut it, saying “there was at no time any proposed cuts to the SRO program,” but rather a shift in who pays.
District official’s email spurs anxiety over SROs
The email to principals raising alarm bells over the school resource officer program’s future was sent by the school district’s senior director of secondary education, Kersten Johnson-Struempler
She claimed that board members were “likely to put forward a motion on the 22nd to replace the funding currently proposed in ASD’s budget for the SRO’s in our schools with mental health professionals.”
Her email encouraged district staff to reach out to board members, write letters or testify at the meeting.
Bellamy, the school board president, said that she had seen a copy of the email, and it is not unusual for district employees to advocate to the board for certain programs and funding.
But Bellamy said Johnson-Struempler’s assertion that the board was considering a motion as described in the email was not something the board discussed or planned. Some board members had individual discussions with administrators, so it’s possible the idea could have been brought up or alluded to then, she said.
In an interview Thursday, the school district chief operating officer, Tom Roth, said the letter from Johnson-Struempler was not sent based on any directive from a superior and that she had sent it on her own volition.
It’s not normal for senior administrators to ask principals or other teachers to lobby or testify on budget matters or otherwise, he said.
Roth said it’s understandable why she would send the email, because principals districtwide have previously expressed support for the program, with many seeing it as invaluable, and it seemed to be at risk.
Roth said he interpreted the letter as a way to inform principals and assistant principals of the discussion since they had expressed previous support for the program.
During Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, Bronson said in response to a question about who was trying to defund the program that he’d heard “from an excellent source,” that it was coming “from a couple of board members and a couple Assembly members.”
The mayor declined to elaborate at the time. A spokesman for the mayor later said that Johnson-Struempler was not his source of information, and declined to say why the mayor had come to think the school board would try to cut the program.
[Watch Bronson’s testimony below:]
Future funding for SROs in doubt
After the budget vote, the board informally asked Superintendent Deena Bishop to come up with a list of items that the city could fund for the school district if the municipality comes up with additional funds during its first-quarter budget revision process, since the district covered things like the school resource officer program.
“If the municipality ends up with a surplus or some wiggle room during their first quarter budget revision process, our hope is that we can have another conversation to see if there’s a way to bring resources back to our kids,” said school board member Carl Jacobs after the meeting.
Funding the school resource officer program will “certainly be a topic of conversation” during the Assembly’s budget revision process, which begins in April, said Dunbar. The Assembly is also likely to revisit the issue when the city builds its 2023 budget this fall, he said.
Cutting money from the city budget for the officers and shifting it to the district means that the money “comes directly out of the classrooms,” Dunbar said.
Bellamy said that the district had been blindsided by the mayor’s proposal last fall, and a flurry of discussions with the Assembly and city administration followed to find a path forward for that program.
“I was really concerned with that cost shift,” she said, also saying that she was grateful that the Assembly’s city budget change filled the sudden funding gap for this school year.
“We are in the business of educating kids. Education is our business. Public safety is really the Assembly’s responsibility. It’s the muni’s responsibility,” Bellamy said.
An influx of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funds is the only reason the district was able to balance its budget this year, she said. The district has long benefited from the partnership with the police force, but now, when it will soon face a deficit of $40 million to $67 million next budget season, it must begin paying for the SRO program, she said.
Without this year’s relief funds, “it would be impossible for us to keep that service,” Bellamy said.
“And so, as valuable as it is, we are going to have to choose. And if not this year – next year. I think the superintendent was absolutely right when she said, ‘You know, we’re living on credit.’ ”