South Western approves armed guard contract, passes tax increase

South Western School District approved a two-year contract for seven armed security guards Wednesday.

The board voted unanimously in favor of contracting with G-Force Investigations, which provides the district's current security, at its June 27 meeting. Member G. Paige Wingert was out for business travel.  

(L to R): Solicitor Gareth Pahowka, board President Vanessa Berger and Superintendent Dr. Jay Burkhart discuss armed security guards at the South Western School Board meeting Wednesday, June 27, 2018.

At $397,950 per year, the contract will upgrade the guards from unarmed to armed security — and there will be seven total, one in each of the district's five elementary and intermediate schools and two in the high school.

Community input: The board had held a community forum before its June 13 planning meeting seeking input on the decision, with the understanding that additional meetings would be held if necessary.

More:South Western discussing possibility of armed officers in schools

More:Some support armed guards in South Western schools but ask if more is needed

No follow-up meetings were held, but the public was encouraged to attend the Wednesday meeting prior to the vote.

About 50 people attended, according to the sign-in sheet.

Rebecca Simms, of Penn Township, asked during public comment what statistics could be drawn to show that having armed officers made a difference in active shooter situations.

"I've seen equal on both sides," said board President Vanessa Berger, according to her own research, explaining that it's hard to know what difference was made. 

Superintendent Jay Burkhart also researched the issue, citing some statistics from The Washington Post that stated of 193 schools that experienced a school shooting since Columbine High School in 1999, 68 had an armed security guard or resource officer on duty. 

West Manheim Township Police Chief Tim Hippensteel, who will be retiring this summer, voiced his support for the use of guards and said often in law enforcement it can be tough for officers to know whether what they do is a deterrent.

"You have a series of robberies, so you put a policeman out there (or a police guard), you don't know you stopped the robbery, but you did," he said.

But having officers on-hand at schools is invaluable when time is a factor, he said. By the time officers arrive after a call to 911, he continued, "in those three to four minutes, it could be a chaotic, tragic situation."

One piece of the solution: Those who attended the June 13 forum had been supportive of the idea but were concerned that armed guards were only a piece of the puzzle — the district also needed to address vulnerabilities in its buildings and tackle root causes of school violence.

They had asked for an assessment of South Western's weak spots — which G-Force could perform — which the board agreed to at its meeting immediately following the forum. 

A security audit of each of the district's buildings will be completed before the school year begins, as a part of the contract with G-Force.

The board additionally approved contracting with architects Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates on Wednesday to draw up plans for renovations to the middle school, which will include safety and security upgrades.

More:Dover school board approves bids for $65 million high school project

"We really look at this as one piece of the possible solution," Berger said, adding that the district is also focused on providing more student support — such as its full-time social worker and a local organization coming in the fall to address bullying.

"I want everyone to understand that this isn't something that we feel like, by approving this motion, we're handling security. We know that it's a complex issue, and it's something that takes effort from all directions," she said.

Jay Clouspy stressed that the decision to hire guards was not an issue he or other board members took lightly.

The term for the guards will begin July 1, after final review and approval by the York County district attorney and district solicitor.

Budget: In addition to approving the G-Force contract, the board had to address its 2018-19 budget.

At the previous planning meeting on June 13, the motion to adopt the budget failed after a tied vote  — with one board member, M. Ann Rinker, absent. 

More:South Western school board ties on budget vote, disagrees over tax increase

The same budget — about $71.5 million with a 0.40-mill tax increase — came up for a vote again Wednesday, this time passing, 5-3.

Members James Harris, Ray Mummert, Rinker, Cindy Boyer and Berger voted in favor.

Vice President Thomas Zimmerman and members Clouspy and Clint Wright cast the dissenting votes — the same way they voted last time.

The item of contention at the last meeting was the tax increase, which Clouspy had said was unnecessary.

South Western School Board members, (L to R) Clint Wright, Jay Clouspy and Vice President Thomas Zimmerman, voted against the district's 2018-19 budget. It passed on Wednesday, June 27, with a tax increase.

He believed the district could balance its budget with the general fund — which has a projected ending balance of about $4.9 million for June 2019, including the $776,062 from the added tax revenue.

"My philosophy did not change," Zimmerman said, when asked about his no vote following the Wednesday meeting. He said he still disagreed with raising taxes.

The 2.06 percent increase is still under the 0.58-mill maximum, according to the district's assessed value.

The cost of the security guards was not factored into the budget, and Berger said she does not know what specifically will cover that expense.

But she said the decision to raise taxes was not based on anticipating the new hires. If the officers were not hired this year, she said, the tax increase would still be necessary, in her opinion.

The G-Force contract also addresses pursuing state and federal grants, which the board noted might be available through Gov. Tom Wolf's new $60 million safety and security funding in the 2018-19 state budget.