Editorial: Bad choice still might be best choice

May. 02, 2013 @ 07:38 PM

On Wednesday, Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield laid out the framework of a choice that might get a dark laugh from Joseph Heller:

Gut the city’s funding for gang-reduction efforts in Durham Public Schools or slash mental health positions, abandon efforts to save a domestic-violence court that’s on the verge of losing its funding and nix plans to expand the capacity for local forensics testing.

He shared with a joint committee on gang issues the idea of cutting by about half the Police Department’s $934,638 annual expense on the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program.

Bonfield couldn’t have been too surprised by the response, as at least three key officials involved opposed the suggestion, The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg reported. In fact, he described it as “about what I expected.”

They’ve got seemingly good reasons to reject the idea. The local G.R.E.A.T. program puts 10 officers in elementary and middle schools to teach classes, work with school counselors and bolster school security.

In the wake of the shooting tragedy in Newtown last year, now seems like a terrible time to make moves that appear to cut corners on school safety.

“Just given the recent events in this country with safety, I as superintendent am hard-pressed to support any recommendation that’s going to eliminate or minimize the level of safety we have in our schools,” said Eric Becoats, a committee member and DPS superintendent.

However, Bonfield wisely noted that he could anticipate similar arguments from groups that would rather see money spent on keeping domestic violence court funded.

“It’s not as if we’re looking to eliminate police services so we can have more parks and recreation services,” he said. “We’re trying to address what the Police Department has identified as very high priorities.”

Bonfield didn’t propose eliminating the gang-reduction funding altogether. Instead, the city would cut funds for officers in middle schools and keep them at the elementary school level. That’s bad, but it’s better than no funding at all, which is precisely what awaits domestic violence court. We think that would be worse.

We might feel less sympathetic to the city manager’s situation if G.R.E.A.T. had always been funded at the local level. However, it started with a federal grant in 2002 and that money has long since run out.

We might feel more sympathetic to the superintendent’s position if the program had shown serious positive results in reducing gang activity. So far, there’s been no exploration of the program’s effectiveness.

And the Newtown argument is only compelling if elimination of officers funded by G.R.E.A.T. would suddenly mean schools lost their sole line of defense. However, in the budget Becoats has proposed for DPS in the 2013-14 fiscal year, the district earmarks $871,306 to pay for resource officers in middle and high schools.

If the city chooses to keep funding the program – fully, at half or even less - they must conduct a thorough evaluation to make sure that it truly is reducing gang activity and promoting anti-gang education, rather than simply supplementing school security.

Otherwise, that money can be better spent on more pressing police concerns.