Commission, sheriff debate fiscal responsibility for school safety

By CHRISTINE BOATWRIGHT / Staff Writer

The Shelby County Commission and Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry are far from being united in determining what entity is financially responsible for school security.

The sheriff has asked the commission to fund deputies in schools, but Commission Chairwoman Lindsey Allison said the commission is a “minor player” in the situation.

The divide began Dec. 26 when Curry approached the commission after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut to request immediate funding to place 11 deputies in schools covered by the Sheriff’s Office.

The commission denied the request due to lack of information. Allison said at the time she wanted to determine the stakeholders in the situation, which included the Shelby County School Board.

In response, Curry funded the deputies from his budget, pulling deputies and investigators from regular duties to cover the schools.

“We’re on a schedule where everyone in the school is on regular time (not overtime). We have people pulled off patrol, investigations, task forces. We had to reduce available services to the citizens,” Curry said.

Allison sent a letter to Curry Jan. 17 to address Curry’s request for additional funding for deputies in schools. In the letter, Allison wrote the commission is “one of the many stakeholders” in the situation regarding school security, and the commission wished to participate in a discussion with school superintendents, school boards, mayors, city councils, police chiefs and legislators.

“The sheriff keeps putting it as us and him, but the reality is that we’re one of many. We may even be a minor player,” Allison said of the commission. “The school superintendent and school board have to decide how they want to approach it.”

In her letter, Allison included a list of the county’s 47 schools, including future schools such as Chelsea’s Forest Oaks Elementary and Helena High School. Only three schools — Inverness Elementary, Mt Laurel Elementary and Shelby Elementary — are in unincorporated areas of the county, which are solely monitored by the Sheriff’s Office. The cities of Chelsea, Wilsonville and Indian Springs, which includes Oak Mountain schools, contract with the Sheriff’s Office to provide deputies for their citizens. The remaining schools are within municipalities that have their own police departments.

“Without addressing any federal and/or state funding, the (list of schools) clearly identifies the Shelby County and Hoover school systems and the cities where the respective physical school buildings are located as the entities responsible for the (principal) source of funding for security for the vast majority for the schools within Shelby County,” Allison wrote in the Jan. 17 letter.

Curry countered this argument by stating the school zones are much larger than each city’s limits, and the sheriff’s office monitors 600 miles of the county’s 800 square miles.

“Everybody pays county taxes, whether they live in the city limits or not,” Curry said. “Assessing the city to be totally responsible for the school makes the county collect taxes with no responsibility. It’s the county school system and the county Sheriff’s Office. You can’t draw that fine of a delineation.

“If the city’s supposed to take care of their school, then why is the county rebuilding downtown Montevallo? It’s a state university and within the city limits. Or why is the county building things at Oak Mountain State Park, which is in the city limits of Pelham? You can’t have it both ways,” he added.

When a gunman entered Chelsea Middle School Feb. 12, a deputy posted at the school was able to negotiate with the gunman and no one was injured.

During a press conference following the incident, Curry said he would approach the commission with another request to fund deputies in schools.

According to Curry, the school system is responsible for education and safety such as fire and tornado safety, but not for law enforcement issues, such as a gunman.

“You can teach anyone to shoot a gun, but it takes a lifetime of preparation and training (to react properly),” Curry said. “Our deputy could have shot his gun at Chelsea school (Feb. 12) and been justified. That’s the difference. It’s not just shooting the gun, but knowing when. It’s about maturity and judgment. Do you prepare for the mission or save money?”

In an emailed statement, Shelby County Superintendent Randy Fuller wrote the school system continues to collaborate with the county’s 10 municipal police departments and the sheriff’s office to maintain law enforcement officers in their respective schools.

“Funding is a concern with everyone. The school system continues to focus on a comprehensive approach to school safety, which along with law enforcement presence, includes modifying front entrances, locking systems, school safety teams, safety plans, and safety drills for students and staff,” Fuller wrote.

Allison wrote in an email that the Hoover and Shelby County school boards and superintendents are legally responsible for school site modifications and school personnel.

“Once the superintendent and school board provide the stakeholders … then a dialogue can occur about allocation of cost,” she wrote.

“With the difficult financial times in all local government and no new taxes on the horizon, it is incumbent on all elected leaders to exercise a financial responsible approach to this very difficult problem,” she added.

Allison said the “missing link” in the discussion on financial responsibility is the school board.

“There is no fight with the sheriff. I don’t like to go public and lead the public with emotional arguments. I feel like we have to take a very logical approach here. We’ve identified it. As a commission, I feel like we’ve staked out our position. We’re at the table and prepared to do what we need to do,” Allison said.