Originally created 05/26/98

Augusta schools cutting money for school safety



As visions of bloody and battered students again flash across the evening news after an angry student opened fire in an Oregon school cafeteria last week, Richmond County school officials are preparing to pass a budget that cuts funds for school safety by a third.

The communities terrorized by fatal shootings by adolescents in the classroom are no different than Augusta and it could be only a matter of time before the nightmare hits home, said School Safety Director Maj. Mike Farrell.

"What they keep saying is that it's not going to happen here and we're betting it's not going to, and yes, I'm worried that it will," he said.

The Board of Education will vote to approve the $176.4 million budget Wednesday and Maj. Farrell not only will not get the 37 percent increase he asked for but he'll take a 33 percent blow from last year's budget -- getting only about half the funding he's requested. Last fiscal year's budget was $515,000 for safety and he requested a raise to just under $824,000. The board has recommended he receive $343,000.

"I'll do the best I can, but we had one officer killed last year and I don't know how they expect me to do a better job next year with less," Maj. Farrell said.

Last July, Public Safety Officer Michael Stephenson was shot to death while responding to an alarm at Jamestown Elementary School. Despite months of trying to get funding approval to purchase bulletproof vests, it wasn't until Officer Stephenson was killed that the board finally approved the purchase, Maj. Farrell said.

"Do we have to have another officer and a few students killed?" he said.

But those controlling the purse strings say a tragedy such as Oregon or Arkansas can't be prevented.

"It can happen anywhere anytime, I don't care how many additional officers we have patrolling, it can happen anyway," said Superintendent Charles Larke. The budget is a tight one and most departments within the school system had to take cuts, he said.

"Last year we made some major increases in that department," he said. If he could increase manpower, Dr. Larke said he'd like to increase officer staffing at the high schools.

"Every department had to tighten its belt," said Board Trustee Andrew Jefferson. "We have trained police officers -- shootings are nothing new to them. I'm sure Maj. Farrell would do the best he could to take care of a situation like that. But we can't predict anything like that."

But Maj. Farrell said an increase in confiscated guns and knives on school campuses -- including the elementary schools -- are red flags to what could happen.

"When you have guns on campus it opens the window of opportunity," he said. "Look at the newspapers and the news and what does it say? It's all about security. The FBI says crime is going down everywhere except in the schools."

The nearly 5 percent increase in the proposed budget will go primarily to teachers' raises and instruction. Certified personnel would receive a 6 percent pay raise and classified personnel would receive a 4 percent raise. Another $2 million would go toward new textbooks.

"I know it's important for the teachers to get a raise, but it's all about safety. That's all we hear about," he said. "We should raise the millage rate. When (Sheriff) Charlie Webster needs more money, taxes are raised."

Trustee Ken Echols said he's willing to revisit budgetary issues regarding school safety and readjust where it's necessary, but safety improvement right now begins in the classroom.

"We need to listen to these students and take them seriously when they say they're going to do something.

"We've spent a lot of money, school safety is a priority. If throughout the year we need to make adjustments to make sure our schools are safe, we'll look at it," he said. "We're not going to do anything that jeopardizes school safety, but no matter how strong our safety is, bad things can happen."