Town balks on school resource officer

Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) is going to have to look for another option to pay for a school resource officer (SRO).

Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) is going to have to look for another option to pay for a school resource officer (SRO).

Ponoka town council has decided not to share the cost of a SRO with the division and Ponoka County.

Larry Jacobs, superintendent for WCPS, has been in discussion with the town to contribute $30,000 a year for the officer. The school board has agreed to pay half the cost of the $130,000 a year it would take to cover the salary, vehicle and expenses that come with the position. Ponoka County has agreed to pay one-quarter of the cost.

Jacobs commended the county for working closely with the school division.

Ponoka County recently needed to house a grader on Crestomere School land and WCPS and the county worked together to meet each other’s needs. “We were happy to do that and in exchange Charlie (Cutforth) recognized, ‘OK, they’re prepared to help us, we can help out Larry’s program,’” said Jacobs.

Despite the county working with the school board, CAO Charlie Cutforth feels there is a challenge for municipalities in this case. There are also students who come from Hobbema and he suggests if municipalities have to pay for an officer then the Four Nations councils should also have a part in that.

The decision for the county was somewhat easier as they do not have the same amount of policing costs as the Town of Ponoka. “As rural municipalities, we don’t, so it’s a little easier to step up when it comes to the resource officer.”

Jacobs feels the investment of an officer is more valuable than just the $30,000 a year it will cost the town. “The community has to accept that these students are theirs as well,” he added.

The officer would help develop strong citizenship skills for youths and can also mitigate issues arising in school.

The future of the Ponoka Elementary School (PES) building

Discussions with the town over the future of the PES building have been tabled since town council made its decision. Until an agreement can be made concerning the officer, WCPS is looking at other options.

“Maybe when we’re considering other alternatives we may find there’s a way to supplement this package we need for an SRO,” he said.

They are looking to see if another group is willing to lease the building for five years at $30,000 a year.

“That’s a beautiful facility that could be used for so many things. It could augment the community,” explained Jacobs.

“To be honest, I guess we were a little dismayed the Town of Ponoka didn’t recognize the need for a detachment member to be working with students,” he added.

A SRO could act as a liaison between students and the RCMP, and help create a strong, trusting relationship. Drug awareness programs such as DARE can be enhanced as well but without an officer, Jacobs feels they will most likely fall apart.

Town council doesn’t want extra costs on taxpayers

CAO Brad Watson said council feels the responsibility should not be downloaded to taxpayers. Ponoka residents have already paid their share of property taxes for the school requisition. School systems do not get all the money from the requisition as the province keeps a portion.

“Give the schools the money,” Watson stated.

When asked about the long-term social benefit of an officer, Watson said there is a positive “spin-off effect for the town.”

He feels working proactively is beneficial but the town already pays approximately $1 million a year for policing. Community safety is a primary concern but Watson said council is uncomfortable taking money from its budget when the schools already have a certain number of dollars to work with. “We have needs and we have wants and we have to assess that in our budget.”

“Is there a benefit? There’s no question there’s a benefit,” he added.

But council feels the province needs to provide that extra funding rather than the municipality, said Watson.

Jacobs feels community policing, which is already a municipal responsibility, should be kept separate from paying for school resource officers. “What we’re suggesting is, let’s step beyond that and become more proactive for our young citizens in terms of building powerful relationships within.”

Regular policing activities do not allow police officers to spend much time in the schools while conducting their daily task of protecting the community.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Cameron Chisholm respects the wishes of council. He does however feel strong relationships can be built between youths and officers with someone close to students. Much of the officers’ work would be related to crime prevention but education would also play a role.

“Today’s youth have the potential to be the ones we’re dealing with in future years,” Chisholm added. “By investing now in the youth it pays dividends later.”

Officers do try to have some form of presence in the school but not to the degree desired. Chisholm believes an officer can open up the lines of communication and develop positive relationships with youths. “It’s like an investment in prevention.”

Family and Community Support Services used to help pay for a SRO some years ago but their mandate changed. This meant the organization was not allowed to provide funds to schools to help pay for an officer.

The difference Jacobs has seen without a SRO is if there are any issues within Ponoka schools administrators must go through RCMP officers. “We don’t have the ability to head off the kinds of problems that may be occurring.”

That officer’s mandate would still be to function as a member of the RCMP and would be responsible to the staff sergeant but the focus would be on working with students and the schools. “That’s a shared conversation with myself and Cameron,” Jacobs said.

There are two resource officers in the WCPS division: Blackfalds and Lacombe and both have similar payment structures; the municipalities share the cost with the school division. Rimbey does not have an officer yet but Jacob’s first focus is one for Ponoka and then Rimbey.