Blaine to discuss police liaison officers in schools

The Blaine City Council April 18 will discuss police officers in schools as it considers a request to add another one at the Westwood Middle and Intermediate schools complex.

The Blaine Police Department already has liaison officers at Blaine and Centennial high schools and Roosevelt Middle School.

The Spring Lake Park School District 16 would like another officer stationed at Westwood Middle School for sixth- through eighth-graders and the neighboring Westwood Intermediate School for fourth- and fifth-graders.

School District 16 contracts for a liaison officer at Spring Lake Park High School with the Spring Lake Park Police Department and Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg said the school board was discussing having a liaison officer at Westwood before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012, really ramped up the national debates on police officers in schools and gun control.

“We’ve talked about this for a number of years,” Ronneberg said. “As a school district we have been growing. We have more kids so it makes sense to have this support at Westwood Middle School and Intermediate School.”

Blaine Police Chief Chris Olson believes that he and Ronneberg began their discussions during the summer of 2012.

City Manager Clark Arneson said superintendents from the Anoka-Hennepin, Centennial and Spring Lake Park school districts will be invited to the April 18 council meeting.

Councilmember Wes Hovland said at the April 4 council workshop that he was OK with adding another liaison officer at Westwood but wondered if it made more sense for school districts to fund liaison officers for a whole calendar year and not just the school year.

Mayor Tom Ryan said the issue of liaison officers in the schools goes beyond the concern of gun violence. These officers are the face of the police department for these kids.

Olson said the liaison officer could investigate thefts and vandalism and respond to an emergency, but they also would make classroom presentations on law enforcement and safety issues. Olson added that the district could even ask the liaison officer to be at Northpoint Elementary from time to time.

Councilmember Russ Herbst is all for having an officer at Westwood and said Olson did a good job finding available funding to pay for this position during the second half of this year. However, Herbst said the city has to consider funding sources beyond 2013 and he believes there will eventually be a demand for officers at every school.

Councilmember Kathy Kolb, who is a teacher, said the schools’ budgets have already been impacted by state cuts.

“These are our kids,” Kolb said. “We’re a partner with the other organizations in the city and we should be a partner without quibbling over $100,000 a year to take care of our kids.”

Hovland said if a school district paid for a liaison officer the whole year, it could place a levy referendum on the ballot and ask voters to decide whether they want to fund police officers in schools.

He emphasized that it would not be fair for only the Spring Lake Park School District to be held to any new rule like this, so he said the superintendents of the other two school districts should be at the meeting to hear the council’s discussion on what could change for future contracts.

Ronneberg said the Spring Lake Park School District is not planning to go back to the voters for another levy referendum anytime soon. He said the expense of putting this liaison officer question on the ballot this fall would outweigh the actual expense of the officer.

Ronneberg said it would not make any sense for the school district to pay for the officer when school is not in session and they are working for the city.

“We have to use our resources wisely and to pay for an officer when they are not working for us isn’t something I’d support and it’s not something the school board would support,” Ronneberg said.

Councilmember Dick Swanson suggested the council should be having this debate in a more public forum. Council workshops are open to the public and Blaine does tape these meetings, but does not air them on television or its website like the regular council or commission meetings.

The council also was not at full strength April 4 because Councilmembers Mike Bourke and Dave Clark were unable to attend.

The earliest this liaison officer could be at the Westwood school complex would be the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year. Olson said the city would realistically need to hire the officer by June 1 to train him or her before they start working in the school.

From June 1 through Dec. 31 of this year, the police chief estimates the city would be on the hook for $19,419 while the school district would be paying $27,245. The city covers training, uniform and vehicle costs and pay’s the officer’s salary when they are in training, on leave or on break.

If the Westwood school complex ultimately gets an officer, it would be the second largest school population the Blaine Police Department has a liaison officer at, according to the most recent data Olson has.

Blaine High School has 2,900 students. Westwood Middle School and Intermediate School have a combined 2,214 students. Centennial High School has 2,200 students. Roosevelt Middle School has 1,150 students.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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