County officials look for ways to keep PRO program

NEW CUMBERLAND – Although they’re not sure how they’re going to pay for it, county officials say they want to keep, and even increase, the law enforcement presence in Hancock County Schools.

Two Hancock County sheriff’s deputies – Brian Hissam and James McGaffick – are assigned as Prevention Resource Officers to Oak Glen High School and Middle School respectively. Two Weirton police officers also serve as PRO officers in Weir High School and Middle School.

PRO officers teach classes, investigate crimes, provide security at sporting events and help with in-school conflict mediation and resolution.

As much as Hancock County officials say they want to keep the officers walking the school hallways, the cost of the program is becoming prohibitive, according to officials.

Hancock County commissioners learned this week that the annual state grant for the PRO program is $30,000; $10,000 less than last year.

When the program started, the state grant was $100,000 and the county portion was $20,000. In the 2010-11 school year, state assistance dropped to $80,000, increasing the county commitment to $40,000. In the 2012-13 school year, state assistance dropped to $40,000, with the balance being picked up by county commissioners and the school district.

“At one time, it was a 90-10 split. It’s really different from that now,” Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said.

County school and law enforcement officials say they need to put their heads together to come up with a funding plan for this year.

“The county commitment will be similar to last year,” Commissioner Jeff Davis said. “The board of education is partnering with us, too, but I don’t know the (cost) breakdown yet.”

Superintendent Suzan Smith declined to say what the district’s contribution will be, but added, “We definitely need the PRO officers in our schools for the safety of our students. We would work with the commissioners to make sure we continue to have the PRO officers.”

Smith said she plans to talk with commissioners about the matter soon.

School Board President Jerry Durante said PRO officers aren’t in the schools just to respond to emergency situations.

“It’s more preventive. They stop problems before they become problems,” he said.

Smith said PRO officers spend a lot of time building rapport with students.

“They’re worth their weight in gold,” she said.

Now, county officials want to place PRO officers in three elementary schools – Allison Elementary in Chester, New Manchester Elementary and Weirton Elementary, currently under construction. The latter, scheduled to be completed in time for the 2014-15 school year, will unite Broadview, Liberty and Weirton Heights elementary schools under one roof.

Fletcher applied for a 50/50 matching grant in May that would have covered the cost of three new PRO officers for three years. Although the application is still pending, Fletcher said, “It’s not looking real good from all the information we’ve been gleaning.”

Another potential source of funding for the three new officers is the excess school levy that is on the Nov. 9 special election ballot, Smith said. The levy generates an estimated $6.8 million a year toward the school district’s operating expenses, including security improvements.

Smith said the levy’s renewal by voters would allow the district to reallocate some of those funds to the PRO program. Increasing the levy’s security allocation from $128,000 to $380,000 would help cover the cost of the three PRO officers, plus other expenses, Smith said.

“We have placed this in the excess levy to ensure the presence of the PRO officers,” she said. “In light of what has happened on a national level, we feel it is important to establish PRO officers in the elementary schools.”

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