BLAIRSVILLE-SALTSBURG: School directors discuss security options
March 07, 2013 10:50 AM
by MARGARET HARPER

BURRELL TOWNSHIP — The Blairsville-Saltsburg school board debated options for school security Wednesday, discussing the possibility of hiring active state police, retired state police or the sheriff’s department to provide armed officers in the schools.

Against the backdrop of the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, school security is on everybody’s mind, said B. Edward Smith, board president. Now it’s up to the board to decide the best option for the district, which already uses video cameras, locks and gates to secure buildings.

Each option comes with a different price tag, pros and cons, said Superintendent Tammy Whitfield.

Hiring active state troopers is the most expensive option, at an average of $101,548.80 per officer, according to information provided by the board. Hiring someone from the sheriff’s office would cost $47,000 to $50,000 per officer, and retired state troopers would cost $23,040 to $28,800 each.

One officer would be stationed on each side of the district.

In Pennsylvania, 118 school districts have guards in schools, according to Sgt. Michael Schmidt, who spoke previously with administration and board members. In Indiana County, the Marion Center, Indiana, Homer-Center and United school districts are reviewing “armed” options.

There are various pros and cons to each plan. For example, active troopers would have the power to arrest a suspect, but sheriff’s deputies and retired troopers could not. In addition, current troopers would have direct contact with police in the event of an emergency. The others would still have to call 911.

For current troopers and deputies, the district would not need to supply uniforms, pay for benefits, provide training or incur any additional insurance costs. For retired troopers, there is an approximate $500 a year training cost, and the district would be responsible for retirement contributions, Social Security and insurance increases.

With current troopers and deputies, there would be multiple officers in the school during the week. With retired troopers, it would be the same officer each day.

Another option is for current security measures to stay in place, which include cameras at each of the schools.

Ryan Maher, a parent with two children in the district and a third to enter soon, encouraged the district to hire active state troopers because that option involves proven policies and procedures with no learning curve or liability to the school. And active troopers are trained in first aid, CPR and the use of automated external defibrillators.

Maher is a state trooper in Westmoreland County but was speaking solely as a parent, he said.

Board members had mixed opinions on whether armed guards were necessary, and which option was best.

George Rowley said he would rather invest the money into training teachers on what to do in the event of an attack. And Smith said he’s heard mixed opinions from parents, some of whom said they believed their children would be uncomfortable with armed guards in schools.

Superintendent Whitfield said she favors the plan with retired state troopers and said the board must ask if spending $80,000 to $85,000 for retired troopers is unreasonable in a district with a $30 million budget.

A straw vote to move forward with security measures in general — not a specific option — during a committee session showed division among the board. Rick Harper, Holly Gibson, Tim Canzano and Ed Smith voted yes. Holly Hall, Linda Brown and George Rowley voted no. Mary Whitfield said she was uncomfortable voting without further researching the options and speaking to representatives from each of the agencies.

Beverly Caranese was absent.

Brown explained that voting no doesn’t mean she is against school security, but rather she wants to find a balance between the plans and the cost.

The board will decide on any further action regarding security at the March 20 meeting, which may include implementing a temporary 45-day trial period with one of the options from April 2 to the end of the school year.

In other business the board:

Heard a budget update from Eric Kocsis, business manager. For the fifth year in a row, the district will not raise taxes, “which I think is fantastic,” Kocsis said. The $30,504,043 budget will be presented in detail at a meeting in May, with a final vote in June. However, the current budget does not include any costs the district may need for security implementations, if approved, Kocsis said.

Heard a proposal from Ian Magness, assistant superintendent, on possible changes to the school calendar.

Some other districts, including Conemaugh Valley and Westmont Hilltop, use a modified system where students are dismissed 2 1/2 hours early Friday.

But while those districts allow teachers to leave shortly after, Blairsville-Saltsburg would use the time to provide professional development.

With the modifications, embedded Act 80 days used for development would be eliminated. Students now attend 176 days, and four Act 80 days that students do not attend make up the difference for a 180-day school year.

This option would also come with a potential cost savings of $15,000 to $30,000, including at the cafeteria level, where students would be fed a hot brunch instead of breakfast and lunch. If substitute teachers were needed on Fridays, it would only be considered a half-day for payment purposes.

It would be a “progressive step forward,” Magness said.

If implemented by the board, the new schedule would go into effect for the 2013-14 school year.

Magness expects to give a presentation to the board at the upcoming meeting.

Will purchase a universal trainer machine for the Blairsville weight room at a cost not to exceed $3,800.

Approved a change to the cellphones provided to the district’s athletic directors. The directors asked the district, which provides them each a cellphone at a cost of $60 a month per phone, to instead provide them a $20 month stipend to use toward the payment of their personal cellphones.

Discussed a proposal by a land developer who wants to sell 91 lots on 76 acres of undeveloped land in Burrell Township near the golf course. The developer is asking for a period of tax forgiveness on lots, such as is provided in the Derry Area School District. There is the possibility to collect about $1,800 to $1,900 from each lot, Kocsis said, or about $182,000 per year. The board requested more information and a presentation by the developer.

Approved the first readings of updated policies regarding homebound students, use of medications, head lice, positive behavior support for individuals with disabilities, dress and grooming, student fundraising, freedom of speech in non-school settings, family and medical leave, use of school facilities, electronic signatures, booster groups and volunteers.

Nominated Rowley to serve as district representative on the ARIN IU 28 board of directors for a three-year term from July 1 to June 20, 2016.

Approved the budget for ARIN IU 28 for the 2013-14 year at a contribution rate of $56,429, a 1 percent increase.

Approved the following field trips at no cost to the district: Blairsville Elementary School, second grade, Carnegie Science Center, May 3; and Saltsburg Elementary School, fifth grade, Blackleggs Creek & Education Area, May 16.

Approved the retirement request of Becky Stiffler, SES teacher. Stiffler has been a district employee since August of 1980 and will retire at the end of the 2012-13 year.

Approved John H. Harsh as BSSD softball assistant coach. The board also approved volunteer softball coaches Thomas Okopal, Janel Prinkey and David Oswald.

Approved a leave of absence for Kimberly Joyce, learning support teacher, intermittently through the end of the school year and retroactive to Feb. 26.

Approved Heather Klingensmith as a substitute secretary, aide and cafeteria aide.

Approved Charles Murray, Kimberly Long and John Rising as bus drivers, substitute drivers and aides.

Approved fundraising requests for the BHS majorettes to operate the concession stand at a vendor sale and to allow pizza and sub sales and a spaghetti dinner.

Expelled a student identified only as No. 077138.

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