BARRE — When it comes to school resource officers, the City Council just sent a mind-your-own-business message to lawmakers pushing legislation that would prohibit them in Vermont.
Though Tuesday night’s vote wasn’t unanimous, it was as clear a signal as the council could send that it isn’t the least bit interested in the Legislature intruding in local decision-making.
“We need to send a strong message to them to leave us alone,” Councilor Michael Boutin said, reacting to recently introduced legislation that — if passed — would prohibit an arrangement he said has been working well in Barre for decades.
That was the thrust of a resolution councilors adopted on a 4-2 vote — capping a protracted conversation over whether and when they should weigh in.
Councilor Jake Hemmerick, who ultimately voted in favor of the resolution proposed by Boutin, questioned whether it was necessary given Gov. Phil Scott’s dim view of the bill — S.63 — sponsored by Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison.
Meanwhile, Councilor Teddy Waszazak, who joined Councilor Ericka Reil in voting against the resolution, suggested consideration of the public statement be delayed until after the city’s Town Meeting Day elections.
Waszazak, who is being challenged for his Ward 2 seat by Brian Judd, said he feared approval of the resolution in advance of the election could “influence” a looming vote on the $50.5 million budget for the Barre Unified Union School District. Postponing consideration of the resolution until after Town Meeting Day would alleviate that concern, he said.
Waszazak’s rationale was that while the proposed school budget includes funding for a resource officer at Barre City Elementary and Middle School, a similar position at Spaulding High School was eliminated early on in the School Board’s deliberations.
Though Waszazak conceded the unambiguous point of the resolution was to discourage just-introduced legislation, he said he feared it could be misinterpreted by some as second-guessing the School Board’s decision to drop one of the district’s resource officer positions.
“It looks to the public right now to be a response to that (School Board) decision, and I would be afraid for this council to adopt this resolution tonight and make it seem as if we’re weighing in on the current school budget as proposed,” he said.
That was a logical leap that left Boutin scratching his head and unwilling to delay what he characterized as a “timely” response to legislation that would threaten a long-standing arrangement between local law enforcement and the school district.
“I’m absolutely mystified why this is so difficult,” Boutin said, suggesting sending a “strong message” to lawmakers was warranted.
“We should let the Legislature know (to) back off,” he said.
Boutin resisted Hemmerick’s suggestion the resolution be edited to eliminate language that describes the city’s long-standing “positive” experience with the resource officer’s position, which has been filled for the past 16 years by Cpl. Jason Fleury.
Reil said her experience with school resource officers wasn’t positive and recounted how her autistic son was routinely restrained during “meltdowns.”
Like Hemmerick, Reil questioned the need to take a formal position on pending legislation that seems destined to die.
“We should not spend our time on a bill that’s not going anywhere,” Reil said, suggesting she was sensitive to those who have written her asking why the council was “overstepping” by expressing an opinion on School Board business.
Mayor Lucas Herring and Councilor Rich Morey noted the school resource officer is employed by the city, partly funded through the municipal budget and squarely within the council’s jurisdiction.
Waszazak, 23, described himself as a product of the post-Columbine era, and suggested those whose school experience predated the response to that mass school shooting couldn’t appreciate how it changed the climate in many schools.
“We need to be talking to people who have lived through this, because we can debate whether having a school resource officer makes parents feel that children are more safe in schools, but I’m more concerned with what the children feel is going to make them safe in schools,” Waszazak said. “For some school districts maybe that’s an SRO, and for some school districts, maybe its two more guidance counselors.
“I am a strong supporter of local control for schools,” he added. “I am a strong supporter that our community knows best what is needed in our schools.”
Herring noted that was the message contained in the proposed resolution.
“It sounds like you are in support of this resolution, but you want to wait for the vote to be after Town Meeting Day,” he said to Waszazak.
Waszazak said he did want to postpone what he agreed was a valid vote, but didn’t necessarily support the proposed resolution.
Herring, a former member and past chairman of the School Board, noted the resource officer was always “highly respected” in the school community. School Director Giuliano Cecchinelli, who is stepping down after several years of School Board service next month, told councilors it still is.
Cecchinelli described Fleury as a “very positive influence” on students and said he understood and supported the intent of the resolution.
“I don’t think it would be an issue if the council goes forward with this,” he said, expressing his personal doubt that approval of the resolution would have any discernible affect on the looming school budget vote.
Resident Bernadette Rose said she was initially troubled by the title of the resolution, which sounded like a blanket endorsement of school resource officers. However, after reading text that Boutin read aloud at one point, she said she was comfortable with the concept that local decisions should be made locally.
Rose suggested incorporating the words “community autonomy” in the title of the resolution and Boutin agreed while insisting reference to school resource officers remain.
On a night when Councilor John Steinman was absent, Herring cast the decisive fourth vote — joining Boutin, Morey and Hemmerick in voting in favor of the resolution. Following a pregnant pause, Waszazak voted against the resolution, as did Reil.