By Kim Walter
WOODSTOCK -- After approving funds for school safety improvements Tuesday morning, the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors met with the School Board for an open discussion on other security priorities.
The conversation was one that came after three public forums in the county and a work session between School Board members last week in which they decided what changes needed to be made immediately.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Conrad Helsley opened the meeting and addressed county and school officials, law enforcement and community members in attendance.
"To say that this isn't a national issue would be wrong," he said. "But we need to keep in mind that it is not just an issue of public safety, but also how we provide that safety."
Superintendent B. Keith Rowland presented the School Board's priorities in terms of what should be done by the beginning of the next school year, items that would be included in a one-year study plan, and items that would be included in the school system's capital improvement plan.
The No. 1 thing that board members recognized as "what the public wants" is having 100 percent school resource officer coverage at all 10 of the county's schools.
Currently there are six SROs; five of them funded through the county, and the other funded through the town of Strasburg.
"What you need to realize is this isn't just about hiring four more people," Rowland said. "If you want 100 percent coverage, that means having an SRO in each building from the time the first bell sounds to when the last bell sounds and students leave for the day."
Rowland and Sheriff Timothy Carter explained that the role of an SRO does not simply include standing at the front door all day. The SROs also have to appear in court, build and maintain relationships with students and staff, and teach a variety of classes in the schools, including D.A.R.E. and self defense.
Carter said to ensure someone is in a building at all times there would have to be some part time SRO positions as well that would require further funding.
Board of Supervisors member David Ferguson raised several questions about additional positions.
"There ought to be a discussion on how you handle this," he said. "What do these officers do during the summer? We need to be smart about this ... get the best bang for our buck."
Ferguson added that the state released an average number of SROs to schools in each division, which is 1:4.
Even with current coverage of six SROs for the county, Shenandoah County schools are averaging better than the state and surrounding counties.
"But wouldn't it be great to say that we are the first county in the state of Virginia to have an SRO to school ratio of 1 to 1," Ferguson said.
Carter assured those at the meeting that he felt he'd made it clear to the public what an SRO is responsible for, and in turn felt that community members were happy with their role. School Board member Kathryn Holsinger agreed, supporting the program.
"I think the relationships that our SROs have formed are a real strength of the program, even from a safety standpoint," she said. "They've been able to know when something is going on between students before it gets out of control."
Ferguson asked if relationships between SROs and students would have stopped the tragedy in Newtown from happening, to which he answered "No."
"The county, the taxpayers of Shenandoah County are going to fund this. What do they expect," Ferguson asked. "If they are OK with the SROs as defined, then you win."
During a regular board meeting Tuesday morning, the supervisors approved $50,000 of the school system's carry over funds be put toward securing more SROs for the county. An additional $243,000 of the same funds was encouraged to go toward other school safety improvements.
Per rough estimates, the school system would need around $485,000 for immediate changes, $450,000 for items which need to be further researched -- if they were all pursued -- and $816,000 for safety changes in the capital improvements plan.
Rowland reminded the boards that the figures could change once putting items out for bid.
"The funds for the SROs has bought us some time, and I thank you for that," he said.
County Administrator Douglas Walker also brought up the fact that in two weeks, the Board of Supervisors would have a budget proposal to consider, but it wouldn't just be made up of costs for the school system and Sheriff's Office.
"There are other needs and requests from outside of this context," he said. "Every community has to struggle to find that balance between what the people want and how to pay for it."
Ferguson expressed concern over the number of people in attendance at Tuesday evening's meeting. He attended all of the previous meetings concerning school safety.
"Compared to the rooms [used for the forums], there are very few people here," he said. "I hope that the support for getting this stuff done is still there when it comes to the actual budget process."
He also said the push for security changes should not take the place of students' education.
"They both have to be done and are equally important for our children," he said.
Staff reporter Alex Bridges, firstname.lastname@example.org, contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or email@example.com