The Derry Cooperative School District will do without a School Resource Officer (SRO) for the 2015-16 school year, one of many economies being put into practice by town departments.
Town departments continue to make adjustments to their bottom lines after a majority of the Town Council voted May 19 to make budget cuts resulting in a $1.21 decrease to the tax rate.
The cuts affected police, fire and Department of Public Works, all of which faced a reduction in force and a reduction in overtime funding.
Derry School District Superintendent Laura Nelson made the announcement about the SRO at the Aug. 25 School Board meeting.
“We will not start school with a School Resource Officer,” Nelson told the board and television audience.
Nelson said she and Business Manager Jane Simard met with Police Chief Ed Garone and “worked out the details of what we’ll need.”
Garone assured Nelson that she would have officers in the schools “as often as possible,” she said. The seven schools’ security needs will be reviewed on an ongoing basis, Nelson added.
The SRO was responsible for collecting data for the Safe School Act reports, and she said the principals will take on that chore.
Pinkerton Academy, where Derry contracts for high school, will have an SRO, Nelson said.
Garone wrote in an e-mail that he has reassigned four officers back to patrol work. These include two from Administrative Services, one from the Detective Bureau and the SRO assigned to the two middle schools.
In regard to the SRO Garone wrote, “This position will be constantly monitored in the hope of being able to restore the officer back to the assignment. We are still working with what we have to try and provide the best possible service to our citizens.”
Garone defined the SRO as “an officer assigned to the school or schools to respond to calls for service at the school or schools, be a presence at the school and in so doing deter some incidents that might otherwise occur, provide guidance and direction to the students and staff as appropriate. Equally important is building relationships with the students and staff with the Police Department.”
The Derry Police have traditionally had a rotating system for the SRO, having an officer serve two years in the middle schools and another officer serve two years at Pinkerton. After the Pinkerton SRO serves his or her two years the officer is rotated out, he said, and the officer who has been serving at the middle school moves up. That way, he said, an officer can work consistently with a group of students for four years. “They get to know the kids,” he said.
In the case of the middle school SRO, he said, the position will remain unfilled for the time being by attrition.
But Garone, as well as Nelson, hope that won’t be for too long. “It’s a very important position and we are watching the situation very closely,” he said. “As soon as it’s possible to free someone up, we will fill it again.”
The SRO in the middle schools acts as a consensus-builder and community-builder, according to Garone. They work at bringing students, staff and the community together, and also in helping the students become comfortable with the police. “We want them to see that we are real people who can help them,” Garone said. “We are regular people in irregular jobs.”
Derry does not do the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, Garone said, but maintains an active presence in the elementary schools with age-appropriate talks and materials on the dangers of drugs. “We will continue to work with the students on this topic as best we can,” he said.
In the department as a whole, Garone wrote that “With the reduction of total personnel we are experiencing difficulty filling shifts that go vacant because of officers being absent from duty because of Injury, Illness, vacation or other proper reasons for being absent from work. This has necessitated ordering officers and dispatchers to work to cover such vacancies. This is a practice that we are hesitant to implement but have found it to be the only solution to the current situation.”
The budget cuts have had Fire Chief Michael Gagnon running 14 people per shift, since July 1 – on paper. But with vacations and sick leave he’s “routinely” staffing his three remaining stations with 12 people, he added. The national standard for a town the size of Derry is 15, Gagnon said in a phone interview Aug. 27.
The average shift in Derry now sees three people on each of the three engines, two people on the ambulance and one Battalion Chief on duty.
He acknowledged that summer is high season for absences, with most staff members taking their vacations while the weather is good. “I hope we can improve our numbers by fall – you can’t really judge by summer,” he said.
He was at the hoped-for 14 people per shift three times in July and once in August, he said.
The department is covering all its calls, but its use of mutual aid has “upticked” a little, Gagnon said. And running 12 men and women instead of 14 affects the capability of operating the truck, tanker and rescue vehicles, he noted.
Like Garone, Gagnon is constantly emphasizing prevention, noting, “The best value is to prevent fires or accidents occurring in the first place.” For him that means going out to the people in school presentations, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) classes and AED (automated external defibrillator) training, and his department will continue to do so.
One of the high points of the Derry Fire year is the annual open house at the Central Fire Station and that will continue this year on Oct. 17, Gagnon said.
“Prevention is key,” Gagnon said, and that comes from education. “When the trucks roll out of the station with the red lights and sirens, that’s reactionary,” he said.
“We are doing as well as we can,” he said.
The cuts have been barely felt in the Public Works department, according to Director Michael Fowler. But it isn’t winter yet.
“Our projects are going on as scheduled and as approved in the budget,” Fowler said in a phone interview Aug. 27. “Summer is hectic because of the paving, but the projects are getting done.”
As for winter? “That,” he said, “remains to be seen.”
He has lost one driver in the Highway department and one position in Parks and Recreation, he said. Both positions assisted with the overall “winter operations,” the catchall term for snow, sleet, freezing rain, plowing, shoveling and sanding.
Fowler said in the next couple of weeks he would be sitting down with Alan Cote, Superintendent of Operations, to review their prospects. “We may have to lengthen some routes or make some operational changes,” he said, adding, “It’s not something we can’t overcome.”
But so far, he said, he thinks the residents will agree that there has been no change in the quality or quantity of service from his department.