During the last three months of Lompoc budget deliberations, perhaps no single issue has drawn more emotional appeals from residents than the looming prospect of the city cutting its funding for school crossing guards.
Several parents of school-age children have shown up to Lompoc City Council meetings and passionately pleaded with the governing body to keep the funding in place, with some suggesting that the council is putting a price tag on the lives of local children.
Lompoc Unified School District leaders and city officials have each pointed the finger at the other regarding who should be responsible for the crossing guard funds, and the issue figures to once again enter the spotlight Tuesday, which is not only when the Lompoc City Council will resume discussions about the 2017-19 biennial budget, but also when the LUSD will kick off its new school year.
“We have instructed crossing guards to report for duty the first day of school,” said John Karbula, LUSD spokesperson and assistant superintendent. “What happens after that is in the hands of the City Council.”
In recent years, the city and the LUSD have had agreements in which the city pays for the salaries of school crossing guards, but the school district oversees the crossing guard program.
The arrangement began in 2014 when the decision was made to transfer the crossing guard program from the direction of the Lompoc Police Department to the LUSD. The Lompoc Police had provided crossing guards for more than 30 years prior, according to city staff, but it was determined in 2014 that it would be more cost-effective for the LUSD to manage the program and take on all costs outside of salaries.
The fate of the city funding was first put into question July 11 when Lompoc City Manager Patrick Wiemiller presented his latest draft budget proposal. That version of the budget, which had been revised several times since its initial introduction May 2, included rounds of mostly service cuts aimed at balancing the budget without calling for any new taxes.
Eliminating the crossing guard grant from the 2017-19 city budget — which would coincide with the next two school years — would save the city about $93,000, according to Wiemiller’s presentation.
During discussions, it was suggested by some speakers and members of the council that the crossing guards should be the responsibility of the LUSD, not the city.
In a letter dated July 31, however, LUSD Superintendent Trevor McDonald disputed that assertion.
McDonald noted in his letter, which was addressed to the Lompoc mayor and council members, that “while LUSD has no legal responsibility to provide for the safety of students away from school, it is nonetheless a matter of critical importance.”
Cost of a crossing guard
The LUSD has traditionally stationed seven crossing guards at busy intersections near its inner-city campuses.
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For the coming school year, the plan is for the crossing guards to be employed for three hours per day for 182 days.
While the city has traditionally contributed the funding to cover the cost of the crossing guard salaries, estimated to total about $47,500 this school year, school officials claim that all crossing guard-related costs have come directly from the LUSD’s general fund.
These ancillary costs include fees associated with hiring, training and supervising the crossing guards, such as paying for background investigations and fingerprinting and purchasing all necessary safety equipment.
Some have pointed to the LUSD's 2014 approval for $411,000 in grant funds from the California Department of Transportation, through the Safe Routes to Schools program, as a prior source for the crossing guard funding. District leaders note, however, that those grant funds, which expired last year, were for separate programs related to health and promoting active lifestyles — the grant was coordinated in collaboration with Healthy Lompoc Coalition — and was not used for crossing guards.
"They are unrelated," Karbula said of the Safe Routes grant and the crossing guard funding. "One had nothing to do with the other."
Finding a solution
McDonald stressed in his letter, which was also sent to Wiemiller and Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh, that partnerships between school districts and cities for services like crossing guards are common and that “safeguarding children who use the city’s streets going to and from school is a priority second to none and should not be predicated on budget concerns.”
The letter goes on to note that both the city and the LUSD face budget concerns, but that the school crossing guards are “too important to fall prey to the chopping block.”
“This is especially true where the proposal to slash funding is brought forward abruptly and without consultation with LUSD — after the district’s 2017-18 budget has already been finalized,” McDonald wrote, referencing the LUSD’s budget, which was approved June 27.
The letter wraps up by asking the council to extend the existing agreement at least through the coming school year and suggests that the city and the LUSD should form a joint committee to study the issues over the next year to help each side determine how to proceed.
“Such a process will ensure that any changes that may need to take place in the future can be well planned in advance without jeopardizing the well-being of (LUSD) students,” the letter concludes.
Tuesday’s meeting of the Lompoc City Council will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 100 Civic Center Plaza.
The LUSD campuses will begin classes for the 2017-18 school year Tuesday morning and the LUSD board of education will hold its first meeting of the school year beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the LUSD Education Center Board Room, 1301 North A St.