GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Mayor Don Purdy says public safety should be a priority and is calling on the township’s school districts to hire and pay for on-duty police officers to work inside the schools.
As budgets tightened during the past several years, police officers in township schools were pulled from assignments as school resource officers and put back on the road.
Purdy, a father of four children enrolled in the township schools, said he is hopeful the districts and Police Department can reach an agreement to bring the officers back.
“We need to be proactive, and the school needs to protect these children. Like the township, I know they have tight budgets, too, but they have to put public safety first,” Purdy said.
In February 2010, School Resource Officer Kevin Jorgensen left his duties at Absegami High School and the Galloway Township Public Schools.
At the time, officials at the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District, which includes Absegami, said they could not afford to help pay to keep Jorgensen at the school.
The Hamilton Township Police Department then pulled its school resource officer from Oakcrest High School, also part of the Greater Egg district, and the Hamilton Township Public School District.
“Unfortunately, because the school budgets got tighter, too, we didn't have the ability to pay for them. The program worked great. We miss the program,” Greater Egg Superintendent Steven Ciccariello said.
The district’s 2012-13 academic year budget was $69 million and came with no layoffs or cuts to programs, but it levied small tax increases on residents in Galloway and Hamilton townships and Egg Harbor City. The increases were all just more than 1 cent per $100 of assessed property value.
Ciccariello said three retired police officers were hired in September to work as school resource officers in the district’s three high schools: Richard Huenke, who retired from the Galloway Township Police Department last year; Ed Ottepka, who recently retired from the Hamilton Township Police Department; and Jim Wilcox, a retired police officer with experience in New Jersey and New York.
All three officers carry weapons, are properly licensed and maintain certifications, Ciccariello said. The three men are paid about $40,000 each year and are eligible for health benefits.
The average salary for a patrolman in Galloway Township is $84,225, and in Hamilton Township it is $84,154.
Purdy said he believes uniformed officers should be in the schools.
“I think that the respect the uniformed officer gets is more than a security guard would,” he said. “A uniformed officer also has more authority than a retired police officer would.”
Ciccariello said it would be optimal to have a uniformed, on-duty officer in the schools, but the problem is that no one can afford it now — neither the townships nor the districts.
Galloway’s police ranks have dipped since 2008 from 74 officers to 48. The 2012 township police budget was $5.7 million, between officer salaries and other expenses.
“We are working with all of the schools to ensure they are safe. It would be nice to have an officer in every school, but it is not realistic without the financial backing of the school or state,” Galloway police Chief Pat Moran said.
Police Capt. Al Kane said all officers are working on the road since the layoffs began in 2010, and right now, the department doesn’t have any spare bodies to put in the schools, although officers try to stop in randomly.
The Police Department is involved in an ongoing open forum with the township’s schools to prepare and assist them in any way for the safety of the staff and students, Moran said.
Galloway schools Superintendent Annette C. Giaquinto said the district formed a School Safety and Security Stakeholder Committee in response to the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
The committee is made up of administrators, teachers, parents, guardians and acting police Capt. Chris Doyle.
“We have met several times, and part of it has been educating the group about what we already do, to have a dialogue, to respond to concerns and to make recommendations,” Giaquinto said.
Recently, the committee and the district have been deciding whether they can afford to return a school resource officer to the middle school who would rotate among the district’s five facilities. Giaquinto said it’s difficult to decide yet because the district will not receive state aid until the end of the month.
“The presence of an officer can do two things. If someone is thinking about doing something, they may be less likely if they know there is an officer here. It’s a deterrent. Second, you already have an officer in the building, and in the event that a shooter comes into the building, you already have that armed officer in the school to address the situation,” Giaquinto said.
At one time, there was a school resource officer from the township department at the middle school, but the elementary schools never had an officer assigned to them, Giaquinto said.
“When we had preliminary discussions about this — and I don’t believe our board is hard and fast on that — this has to be a current police officer, and it could be a retired officer, but no decision has been made yet,” she said.
She said the possible return of a school resource officer will be discussed at a district budget meeting next month.
Contact Donna Weaver:
Follow @DonnaKWeaver on Twitter