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Montgomery Co. officials 'shocked' at recent Christiansburg decision on SRO funding

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Several Montgomery County leaders are raising their eyebrows in response to a recent decision concerning the future of school resource officers in Christiansburg’s schools.

The town council earlier this month approved a plan to end its funding for three school resource officer roles, a decision that will become effective at the start of the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber elaborated on the reasoning behind the decision in a letter he sent to Sherri Blevins and Mark Cherbaka. Blevins is chairwoman of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, while Cherbaka is her counterpart on the county School Board.

Barber wrote that the decision by his colleagues was prompted by the county’s previous denial of a town request for reimbursement of the three positions.

“In response to the denial of the town request for reimbursement of town provision of school resource officers … town council voted to provide the county and school board notice of the town’s intent to remove subsidy of our school resource officers from the county schools located within our corporate limits, effective July 1, 2023,” the mayor wrote.

Council narrowly passed the measure on a 4-3 vote. Barber, who only votes in the event of a tie, cast the deciding vote on the matter.

Christiansburg provides $265,000 annually in salaries and benefits for the three SRO jobs, according to figures provided by the locality. Town staff said that funding doesn’t include expenses such as the vehicles, uniform, equipment and training.

Barber, in his letter, addressed a meeting during which he and Christiansburg Town Manager Randy Wingfield met with Blevins and Montgomery County Administrator Craig Meadows to request funding for the three Christiansburg Police Department SRO jobs. The mayor wrote that the request and some other items were denied in an Oct. 24 letter from the county.

“We understand the differences in our positions and [we] are fully prepared to re-address the issue should the board reverse its position of the funding and reimburse the town for the salaries of our SROs,” Barber wrote. “We believe it would be easier and more cost effective for the county to fund our trained officers rather than for the county to hire, train and equip new offices — including vehicles, for which the town did not request reimbursement.”

Barber said the town believes it is in the best interest of the students to have town officers in the schools as it would allow the already established relationships and trust to continue. He said it will take time to build a rapport with students and staff if the town SRO officers are replaced with county deputies.

Several county officials voiced surprise at the decision by the town council.

Blevins said in an interview this past week that she was shocked and disappointed with the move.

“Personally, as someone that’s advocated my whole life for school safety and the positive relationship with law enforcement in the community, I’m very disappointed with this,” she said. "It’s so vital. I’ve fought and advocated for school resource officers. I wish for every school to have school resource officers.”

The issue comes on the heels of the incident in Newport News where a 6-year-old student shot and wounded his first-grade teacher. Blevins noted the timing of that incident and Christiansburg’s recent decision.

“We just had a school shooting in Virginia,” the supervisor said. “I just think … we need to work together to find a resolution. We need to make it work.”

Blevins’ board plans to discuss the school resource officer issue in a work session Monday night.

“I was disappointed when I heard about the Christiansburg Town Council’s decision to pull their officers out of the schools in Christiansburg on July 1,” Supervisor Mary Biggs wrote in a text message. “However, I remain [open] and committed to working with all the parties involved with this issue, law enforcement, the two towns, the county and the school system to help find a solution so school resource officers can have a presence in all our schools.”

Biggs continued.

“The priority … the bottom line for me is the safety and security of our county’s students and employees,” she wrote.

The Oct. 24 county letter Barber referenced — and which The Roanoke Times initially obtained this past fall — does include some comments from Blevins about her board’s decision to not provide funding for Christiansburg police officers in town schools.

Blevins said the reasoning behind her board’s stance was based on discussions the elected body had with the top law enforcement officials from the county, Christiansburg and Blacksburg, a point she addressed in the October letter.

“The sheriff and the [town police] chiefs agreed that the current system under which the towns provide officers in MCPS facilities in the towns, while the sheriff provides deputies in the MCPS facilities in the unincorporated areas of the county, was working well,” Blevins wrote.

Barber, however, said it’s an issue of financial fairness for the town, especially when taking into account all the contributions Christiansburg has made to the county over the years.

“Do we feel school resource officers are needed? Absolutely,” the mayor said in an interview. “Our feeling is ‘Hey, we’ve provided these officers for almost 15 years.' If they can decide to expand the school officers, they can look to reimburse us for our annual costs. That’s kind of it in a nutshell.”

Barber was referencing a decision from supervisors this past summer to provide $150,000 for two additional school resource officers in the county schools outside of Christiansburg and Blacksburg. The move was touted by county Sheriff Hank Partin, who said at the time that it would ensure a police presence at each of those schools at all times.

Partin has long called for a permanent SRO presence at each of the county schools. The sheriff said the measure helps improve response time as it generally takes longer for police to reach the schools outside the two towns due to distance. 

Barber maintained the concern over financial fairness.

In his recent letter, Barber listed a number of figures, including the revenue from real estate taxes in Christiansburg. He also listed revenues from sources such as taxes on personal property and machinery and tools.

“The county has generated over $200 million from within the town of Christiansburg over the past six years - just based on these taxes,” Barber wrote. “We realize the county must fund schools, courts, the health department, social services and animal control … however, if you examine the percentage of your budgets versus your revenues generated from the towns, I think you will see what amounts to subsidy of county functions in the unincorporated areas by property owners within the town. Town council desires more equity in the distribution of Montgomery County resources to prevent this subsidization.”

Barber, however, stressed that the duties of the three SRO jobs at the root of the issue will continue to be filled after July 1, regardless of what other decisions are made before then. 

“People say ‘you’re abandoning our children.’ That’s not true, at all. It’s a matter of asking for reimbursement for that service,” the mayor said. “It’s a matter of open discussion with them.”

Each of the middle and high schools across Montgomery County has an SRO assigned to them, according to information previously shared by both Partin and Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Brenda Drake.

Not all the elementary schools in Blacksburg and Christiansburg have an SRO on their campuses at all times. While all the schools have an officer available to them, many of the officers are assigned to more than one school, Drake previously said.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin took a moment in Tuesday's news conference to talk about steps his administration is taking in reaction to the Uvalde massacre, including seeking funding for more school resource officers.

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