OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa school district will have a new safety feature by the time students return in August for the 2019-2020 school year.
A new system will allow the district to contact law enforcement directly with a two-way system that should help both clarity and speed of communications in an emergency. The radios were approved last fall, and will be in place at each district.
Security is always a concern for schools, which must strike a delicate balance between accessibility — and ease of evacuation — and the very real need to control access to buildings. Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said each building will have at least two radios, which have been welcomed by the district’s principals.
“They’re excited to have portable ones because principals are outside, in classrooms, and can have one with them,” she said.
“Could you give us an example of when they might be used?” board member Nancy Manson asked.
Tim Richmond, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said there are several scenarios in which they might be needed. Communications during an emergency evacuation are critical, and police need to know immediately when there is a clear threat from someone at a school.
Security in the form of the school resource officers at Ottumwa High School and Evans Middle School remains in dispute. The district responded Tuesday to last week’s rejection by the city of proposed changes to the cost sharing agreements.
District officials pushed back against statistics council members presented during their discussion, saying fights and assaults were both down substantially this year, though drug and alcohol violations were up. OHS Principal Dan McGuire attributed that to a willingness to report every violation. He also said the increase was 12 incidents, not a twelve-fold increase as stated at the council meeting.
The city said the district had proposed a 50-50 cost share, which would hit its budget hard. The district said Tuesday that objection didn’t mention a proposed increase of its own, nor do the current percentages reflect common agreements in other communities around Iowa.
Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said the discussions that led to the district’s proposal began in January, and wasn’t made in a vacuum.
“The city proposed an increase in school resource officer costs of over $30,000 or 16 percent for the upcoming school year. This represents a significant cost increase to the district without any increase in services requested or provided,” she said.
Discussions with City Administrator Andy Morris led Kooiker to believe the city council would not make a counteroffer, leaving the district to consider the contracts as they stand or making an amended offer.
Board member Michael Carpenter said the district needs the officers, but also needs to avoid a situation in which it bids against itself. Other board members raised questions about the city’s stance given Kooiker was told the officers involved would remain with the department if the district refused any contract — eliminating its entire contribution to the officers’ funding.