City renewing scrutiny of GREAT

May. 18, 2014 @ 04:30 PM

City officials are going to try this month and next to prod the Durham Public Schools into picking up part of the check for operating an in-school “gang-resistance” program.

The program is likely to cost the Durham Police Department $877,263, a considerable sum even for an organization that in fiscal 20013-14 operated on a $54.6 million budget.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said he’s asked the school system to contribute about $200,000, adding that if it’s not forthcoming, he and the City Council are likely to consider re-assigning some of the officers or money now devoted to the program “to other priorities.”

The manager’s move renews a debate he started last year about the funding of the “Gang Resistance Education and Training” or GREAT program.

On the city’s end, the effort involves assigning four officers to work in DPS middle schools, five more to work in elementary schools and a sergeant to supervise them.

The officers in theory are in the schools to teach students about how to stay out of gangs. But the response to Bonfield’s questions last year indicated that DPS officials regard them more as in-house security, akin to the “school resource officers” or SROs the Durham County Sheriff’s Office provides.

The key difference is that while DPS doesn’t pay the city anything for the anti-gang program, it does compensate the Sheriff’s Office for supplying SROs to elementary, middle and high schools.

The SRO program requires the attention of 24 deputies, corporals, sergeants and lieutenants and at last check costs $1.7 million a year. Of that, DPS pays $474,689, according to a briefing paper city Budget & Management Services Director Bertha Johnson sent the City Council.

Bonfield wants DPS to split with the city the cost of rotating five officers among 17 elementary schools – an expense Johnson and her staff figure will cost $398,977 in fiscal 2014-15

He said he singled out the elementary schools because there’s broader agreement among local officials that “the GREAT aspect is only part of what [officers] are doing there.”

Apprised of the possibility of a city cutback, school board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said she and her colleagues would “need to find a way to fund those positions if the city can no longer contribute the same amount.”

“There is value in the GREAT program and I definitely think the work the GREAT officers do as SROs is vital,” she said.

But she said the school board hasn’t discussed the matter with the DPS staff yet.

Moreover, Carter said, “there might be some value in the city, county and school district having a broader discussion about the value of public safety services in general,” most likely starting in the monthly meetings of their top executives and board chairs.

Bonfield said he also wants to talk to Police Chief Jose Lopez, to get more details about the workload the GREAT officers shoulder and the “level of service” they provide each school in the program.

That could generate more options for the council to consider, perhaps allowing coverage of the schools by the same number of officers, at a reduced rate that allows them to work on other things for the Police Department.