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Petaluma seeks funds for cops in schools

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Petaluma city officials said they have a new strategy to restore a full-time police presence at the city’s two public high schools for the first time in years, an idea that hinges on whether Petaluma’s largest school district will cover part of the cost.

In what Petaluma’s top cop described as an enhanced version of a “two-for-one” deal, the city would reassign an existing officer to schools while chipping in for a quarter of the cost to hire an additional, second position. The arrangement would leave the district, Petaluma City Schools, on the hook for around $125,000 annually, said Petaluma Police Department Chief Patrick Williams.

Police would be able to adjust their scheduling to limit the impact to patrols caused by the new assignment, but will only move forward if the district agrees to help fund the second school resource officer. A single officer based at one school or across multiple campuses would simply fail to produce sufficient results to justify taking that person off the streets in Petaluma, Williams said.

With the concept in place, it will be up to the district and its elected Board of Education to decide whether to go forward.

“In anybody’s math, it’s an effective, reasonable use of taxpayer dollars,” Williams said.

Grappling with the fallout of the recent economic crisis and facing the need to significantly cut staffing as a whole, Petaluma eliminated its two school resource officers and a third DARE officer in 2009.

The officers were considered to have a range of benefits, fostering beneficial ties with Petaluma youth and providing early intervention to prevent full-fledged criminal concerns later, Williams said.

The police department deployed a full-time officer to Petaluma High School in 2013, but ended the assignment one year later after determining that a single officer was not enough to duplicate the effectiveness of the former program, the police chief said.

Yet staff have continued to view the school-based roles as effective, ranking them highest among desired expansions of police department programs in a recent internal survey.

Once budgeted for 78 sworn officers, the Petaluma Police Department, which receives its funding through the city, now has 62 positions and a handful of grant-supported roles.

“I know there’s tremendous value, and we’re losing a community asset and resource that we’ve had to set aside by not having the officers on the campus,” Williams said.

Noting during an inquiry last week that it was the first he had heard of the city’s idea, Gary Callahan, schools superintendent, said in an email that district officials have not otherwise discussed the restoration of school resource officers or other additional staffing expenditures.

“At this point, I don’t anticipate this would be a priority for us as we have just completed our initial budget for next year, allocating resources that match our long term, three year local control accountability plan,” Callahan wrote.

Board of Education President Michael Baddeley also said it was the first he had heard of the idea, adding that school resource officers have not been a prominent focus of conversation in recent years on the part of both school officials and the public itself.

While a decision to allocate discretionary funds to support the role would have to come with careful analysis, Baddeley said he’d be open to the conversation.

“We do work cooperatively with other government agencies. So any time we can put something together that becomes a win-win for both sides, it’s incumbent upon us to take a look at it,” he said.

Helping to propel the conversation around restoring school resource officers has been the newly formed grassroots group Petaluma Parents Against Drugs. Headed by two parents with children at Casa Grande High School, the group has met with various school and city officials over the past two weeks to make their case for the officers and a number of other initiatives.

The group arrived en masse to speak during the public comment period for the Petaluma City Council’s meeting last Monday, prompting City Manager John Brown and others to describe recent strategizing around restoring school resource officers at a time of limited available funding.

“We’ve walked a financial tightrope in this community, said Mayor David Glass, recalling painful mid-recession budget decisions that, at one point, left the city with a reserve of only $5,000. “Even in light of that, I think there’s room there if we can be met halfway by the school district, to find a path to cooperate so that we can do some staffing.”

Chief Williams said he would be looking for a three-to-five-year funding commitment from the district, but would aim for an agreement that gave the district leeway to back out if the program did not prove its own merit. The officers would spend time in the city’s middle schools, in addition to Petaluma High and Casa Grande.

As co-founder of the new advocacy group, Heather Elliott-Hudson said the response around bringing officers back to Petaluma schools has been positive.

“It was gratifying to know they support it. Now, we need to find the money,” she said.

Some Petaluma council members called for a push to conduct a joint meeting with the Petaluma City Schools Board of Education in May to discuss the proposal, timing that would coincide with talks around the city’s 2016-17 budget.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)