There aren’t too many good options in the current situation with the City of Ottumwa and the Ottumwa Community School District. On Tuesday, the council rejected the school district’s proposal to share the costs of the school resource officers 50-50.
It’s hard to blame the city for doing so. The net effect of such a change would not just be the extra expense assumed by the city, but also the loss of the current school payments for the officers. That would be a major blow to the city’s budget.
It’s hard to blame the school district for asking. It’s not as if Iowa schools have been flush with money over the past several years. The legislative parsimony ebbed somewhat this year, but the districts have received far less allowable growth in previous years than what is needed. Changes in the upcoming school year would free up money.
And no one is arguing the officers aren’t needed. The unfortunate reality is that in today’s world there is good reason for having armed police officers at middle schools and high schools. While we all wish that wasn’t the case, wishes will not change that fact.
We do see a significant problem with the request: timing. The city’s budget is set, and making the change during the fiscal year would require a major budget amendment. It’s true that the academic year and the financial year are offset, and that such conflicting calendars will raise issues at different times. But that may also offer a way out for both sides because, ultimately, whatever money is involved belongs to only one group — the taxpayers.
It would be wise for the district to keep an open channel of communications with the city, and vice versa, to work on continuing negotiations toward a deal that would be acceptable to both sides. It seems unlikely major changes would be acceptable to the city in the upcoming budget, but there is time for a deal to be struck that would allow both the city and the district to figure the changes into their Fiscal 2021 budgets.
That would delay the changes to the 2021-2022 academic year, but would allow both to avoid an unexpected budgetary shock. It would also avoid putting either the district or the city in a position in which the elected officials feel their backs have been put against a wall. That’s not just an issue of saving face with voters, it’s a matter of avoiding the natural human resistance to the feeling of being compelled to take a specific action.
The issue may be at rest for the moment, at least from the city’s perspective, but it’s unlikely to stay that way. If the school district makes alterations to the agreements for school resource officers a goal, then this will not be the last word on the subject.
We hope both sides are able to negotiate without losing sight of the fact the issue on the table is, in the end, the safety of the students in our community. Crime in our schools is an unfortunate fact. It can be mitigated, but probably never eliminated. And the need for officers in the schools has been proven in recent years.
There aren’t too many good options now. But that doesn’t mean good options can’t be found with a bit of patience, goodwill, and smart use of time.