LHISD talks policing plan

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By SHELLY WILKISON

In an update to school trustees Monday, district administrators said they are waiting to see the final proposal from the City of Liberty Hill on a school resource officer program before making a final recommendation on a school law enforcement presence.

The update, presented by Asst. Supt. Chad Pirtle, comes days after Pirtle notified the City in an email that the district had decided to “pause on the SRO discussion and revisit starting the district police department.” In the email, Pirtle wrote that if the district wanted to consider an agreement with the City at a later date it would contact City Administrator Greg Boatright.

On Monday, Pirtle presented the school board with a timeline of the discussions with City officials, which concluded with a conversation he had initiated Friday with Council Member Ron Rhea. Pirtle said he asked to see the latest version of a proposed Interlocal Agreement for SROs drafted by the City’s attorney.

The document, which was provided to The Independent as part of the July 23 Council meeting packet but never voted on, provided for city police officers to be assigned only to LHISD campuses that are located inside the city limits.

Under that proposal, Liberty Hill High School, Bill Burden Elementary School and Rancho Sienna Elementary School would not be covered under a city-backed SRO program, nor would the proposed Santa Rita Elementary and a new middle school. The two new schools are part of a bond package subject to voter approval next month.

“We’re waiting to see their revised MOU,” Pirtle said Monday, adding that the first version was developed in June by Mayor Rick Hall, Liberty Hill Police Chief Maverick Campbell and agreed to by Pirtle and Superintendent Rob Hart.

The first version, which was also provided to The Independent but not voted on by Council or the LHISD Board of Trustees, provided that all schools in the district would be serviced by a City SRO — not just those inside the city limits. The City and the school district were to split the costs of the program evenly.

At a council meeting June 25 just before elected officials were set to consider the first MOU, Boatright raised some questions about the proposal. In learning that an additional MOU with the Sheriff’s Office would be required to service schools outside the city limits, Boatright asked whether annexation of those campuses into the city would be a solution.

Boatright also raised the idea of contributing directly to the school district’s police department rather than have an SRO arrangement with the Liberty Hill Police Department.

Although a vote was never taken on the first MOU, the City’s attorney wrote a second version that eliminated the schools that were not inside the city’s jurisdiction, and also provided a cost breakdown. While the document clarifies those costs are not final, the estimated cost per officer came to $90,452.

The original agreement between Hall, Campbell, Pirtle and Hart provided for two school resource officers. The school district had budgeted about $100,000 for some form of law enforcement.

In Pirtle’s account of the timeline, he walked the Board through the communications he had with city representatives and shared what he had learned from reading The Independent.

“We didn’t hear anything from the City after the initial agreement was written until we actually read in The Independent that the City was not going to be able to begin the program until January 2019,” Pirtle said. “Dr. Hart and I were kind of surprised because in our talks with the Mayor and Police Chief, all felt confident that we could have something in place by August, maybe September.”

Pirtle said the district offered to fund some of the start-up costs because the City’s fiscal year starts one month after the school district’s fiscal year.

“Around Sept. 11, we met with Council Member Wendell McLeod. He indicated he was going to bring up the SRO topic at the next City Council meeting. We then read that the City had removed funding for the SRO program from their budget,” Pirtle said. “At this time, we’re thinking since they removed the funding, we’re going to revisit the (school district) police department. Dr. Hart and I began revisiting the possibility that we’re going to use that money we had designated for SRO program and rolling it into starting a police department.”

Pirtle added that during that time, Rhea “called me and indicated that the deal was not off the table, and that the city had changed the prior terms and asked to meet about the new proposal. In visiting with Dr. Hart, the decision was made to continue to look into the LHISD police department, but I did let him (Rhea) know that if we still had an interest we would reach back out to him.”

Pirtle said he contacted Rhea last Friday and asked him to send the latest version of the MOU. As of Monday’s meeting, he had not received it.

On Monday, trustees questioned the hesitation on the City’s part and urged the administration to move forward to implement a plan for a police presence, even if it meant moving on without the City.

“This is a priority for our constituents, but also for all of us,” said Trustee Vickie Peterson. “We started this discussion in February, then had an update in May, and then June is when we agreed (to talk with the City). I don’t know that I would wait. I would think that we would want to be moving forward toward something versus waiting for an answer.”

“We’re waiting to see their revised MOU,” Pirtle responded. “Is it anywhere close to what we talked about? Or is it something totally different than what we talked about and agreed upon months ago? If it’s not, then it may not be the best deal. That’s why we went with it because it was the best deal at the time. And it may not be the best deal when we see it. But we do want to see it to make the right decision, whatever that decision is.

“I would encourage everyone to look at the long term of this, and what is going to be the long-term solution to this,” Pirtle said Monday.

Pirtle estimated that it would take four to six months to create a police department for the school district.

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