California School District Examines Security Detail

The West Contra Costa school board is second-guessing a $3 million proposal that would scrap district police and high school supervisors in favor of contracted sheriff's deputies and rangers.

Public Employees Union Local 1 representatives say the plan violates the contract, which forbids farming out the work of school supervisors.

Another sticking point with union and school board members: fewer workers, higher cost.

"When I hear we're going to spend $3 million and have half the people, I've got to ask why," said board member Charles Ramsey at an April 6 board meeting.

School board member Dave Brown wondered aloud if the money should be invested in more supervisors and district officers.

"Could we get equal or better safety if we spent that amount on our own employees?"

School Police Chief Robert Sherock and Associate Superintendent Vince Kilmartin last month unveiled a plan to overhaul district safety, four years after an audit criticized district police.

If the school board and the county approve the sheriff's contract, it would mark the first time the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office has been hired as a safety provider for an entire district.

The West Contra Costa proposal calls for nine deputies, 12 rangers and a sergeant at a cost of $2.5 million. Those 22 employees would replace about 32 district officers, dispatchers and high school supervisors, Kilmartin said, though they would be able to apply for the new positions.

Operational expenses, including access to the Sheriff Office's dispatch, seven Crown Victoria cruisers and helicopter patrol, would run another $357,000, the proposal says. The entire plan totals to $3.2 million a year, at least half a million more than the current budget, Kilmartin said.

Though the model provides more employees overall, it cuts in half supervising staff at high schools.

"You need more people. You don't need less people," said Matt Felder, site supervisor at Hercules Middle/High School.

Kennedy High School supervisor Flem Meriwether said police cannot serve the same role as site supervisors. Part counselor and part disciplinarian, supervisors not only round up tardy students but represent someone that kids can come to with serious problems --drugs, pregnancy or violence.

"The kids at school will tell us stuff they probably wouldn't tell police," Meriwether said.

Their work is largely preventive rather than reactive, a result of rapport with students, he said.

"If you don't know the kids, and the kids don't respect you, that could lead to a lot of difficult situations."

The Sheriff's Office has plenty of experience in peacekeeping, with deputies at Danville and San Ramon high schools, said Sheriff's Commander Scott Daly. Though deputies cost more, the increased quality and limit on district liability would be well worth it, he said.

"If you pay for the best, you get the best," Daly said. "If you want to settle for less, eventually it will cause you a problem."

District police have been entangled in embarrassing incidents in recent years.

A 2001 audit called the force undermanned, ill-equipped and undertrained. Several officers fell short of state requirements.

In April 2003, a burglar stabbed a district officer, puncturing his lung. Reports suggested the officer had not properly handcuffed the suspect or radioed for help.

Soon after, a West Contra Costa police chiefs' association rebuked the district force and recommended the district either double its police budget or contract with an outside law agency.

Sherock, a retired Sheriff's Office lieutenant, joined the district in January. He previously oversaw security for AC Transit, one of 11 agencies that contract with the Sheriff's Office for service.

The school district hired Sherock for his experience and contacts with the Sheriff's Office, he said.

"If we had an efficient, highly trained school police, we wouldn't even be talking about this. But we don't," Sherock said.

Union members argue that the district whittled supervisors and police to dangerously low levels during budget crises, guaranteeing their inadequacy.

For instance, the school board eliminated 27 site and student supervisor positions over the past year, according to a Local 1 document. The district budgeted for 63 site and student supervisors districtwide in 2003-04, and 36 this school year, the document says.

The district's 12 officers must cover 71 sites across 110 square miles in six cities.

"They set us up to fail," Meriwether said.

The union showed its own plan to the school board late last week. It would double the number of people that the sheriff's office is proposing, at approximately the same cost, he said.

The union's plan also calls for oversight committees with students, teachers and union members.

"Not to take anything away from the Sheriff's Office," Brown said. "What they do they do well. But they're not in the business of education."

Daly said providing security isn't about education.

"Let people in the law enforcement business handle the law enforcement business," Daly said. "It just makes sense."

The board will discuss the plan at a safety forum April 27. The Board of Supervisors also needs to approve the contract.