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A New Piece In The Budget Puzzle

Newtown’s school and municipal officials have a new piece to fit into the town’s annual budget puzzle this year — a new priority, a new expense, a new conundrum. As the town transitions from the various ad hoc arrangements it established in the wake of 12/14 to better secure local schools, the Board of Education, at the urging of First Selectman Pat Llodra, has proposed a security budget totaling just under $3 million that is separate from the school board’s proposed $71.5 million operating budget for 2014-15. This security budget will supplant those “short-term” arrangements for 2013-14, which have consisted largely of placing police officers in the schools and paying for the inevitable overtime for these extra services from the local police force.

Here is the conundrum: the exact costs for school security for the coming fiscal year are difficult to quantify. The plan calls for a cohort of new school security officers (SSOs) — probably armed and trained retired police officers who have yet to be hired and deployed — and various new security and school hardening projects. The The town includes in its budget existing school resource and youth officers that work out of the police department. The SSOs will be a new class of security officer in the schools. It is anticipated that most of these new costs will be covered by a package of federal grants to enhance school security in Newtown. Interim Superintendent of Schools John Reed described the new SSO program as a school/town collaboration that will required both partners to be “joined at the hip” — a new challenge for coordination between the respective finance offices of the school and town.

The federal funding for these security programs is not expected to last beyond next year, in which case a consolidation of all programmed school security expenditures in the school budget may help avoid the confusing hybrid set of security line items in the spending package that will be presented to voters this year. The new security initiatives will bring a new set of protocols and probably a new set of challenges to maintaining an open learning environment in the town’s schools. Working with a qualified head of school security and local public safety officials, the Board of Education should be best equipped to ensure that this new priority for Newtown does not adversely affect one of the town’s oldest priorities: educating its children.

In this transitional year, however, the town is doing the best it can with the resources in hand. Despite whatever overlap there may be in bailiwicks, whatever steep challenges there may be in the learning curve, and whatever midcourse adjustments may be required, this is a piece of the puzzle we cannot leave on the table.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This editorial was corrected on 2/21/14 to remove  inaccurate assertions that existing school resource and youth officers are funded in the Board of Education's operating budget. They are listed in the budget as a town expense. The editorial also incorrectly suggested that federal grants covering new security officers are exclusively grants to the town when in fact federal funds for school security purposes are directed to both the school district and the town.)

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