Austin ISD police shortage leaves campuses without full-time officers

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AUSTIN (KXAN) —  Major turnover within the Austin ISD Police Department is leaving campuses unmanned by full-time school resource officers.

KXAN is not naming schools because we do not want to put students and teachers at risk, but we have learned there was a three week window after winter break where a large high school went from two school police officers to one.

The campus where Shelli Coe-Mackie’s daughter attends has been without a school police officer for more than a month.

“I would hope all campuses have police officers if that is what is supposed to be happening,” said Coe-Mackie. “And if it’s not I would hope that somebody would fix that.”

AISD Chief Eric Mendez says a patrol officer is going by and spending time on campus between calls, and another Sergeant over the area is spending as much time there as possible. Parents have no reason to worry, according to Chief Mendez, but filling the holes has been tough.

Since the start of the 2015-2016 school year, 13 officers have left the department. Chief Mendez calls it the worst year for staffing since he started with the department 17 years ago.

“I would say salary is probably the primary reason they leave,” said Chief Mendez.

The current starting pay in AISD for an officer with zero experience is $45,000 to $46,000 a year. If new hires come in with years of experience, the most they can make starting out is $49,000 a year. After a new officer has been on the force two years, they can move up to the $49,000 a year salary. Any raises after that point come as the school board approves salary increases across the board for all district employees.

Chief Mendez says most recently they have lost officers to Austin Community College, Pflugerville ISD and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. Starting pay for a Travis County deputy is $52,301 a year.

The Pflugerville Independent School District recently implemented an 11 percent “salary adjustment” after an independent study said it was needed to compete with other departments. Starting pay for a Pflugerville ISD officer with no experience is $51,022, plus incentives for various levels of education and experience. While their officers are city employees, the department is funded and paid by the school district.

The Bastrop Independent School District recently launched their own police department, and starting pay ranges from $18.68 to $29.01 an hour based on experience. They also receive stipends for advanced degrees and certifications.

AISD School Board President Kendall Pace told KXAN she was not familiar with this issue, but said “attracting and keeping talent is an ever present focus for us.”

According to Trustee Paul Saldana, an audit of the AISD police department resulted in several recommendations including a 5 percent to 8 percent pay raise for officers to be competitive with the local market. The administration rejected the recommendation and pointed to the 3 percent raise for all employees in the 2015-2016 budget which included school police officers.

In addition to officers, pay among AISD teachers is not competitive with surrounding school districts. The district has been in a budget crunch for several years since state lawmakers cut school funding, and the millions of dollars a year the district is required to give back to the state for recapture continues to grow.

Trustee Saldana provided the following statement to KXAN:“Because our AISD Police are not civil service officers like Austin Police Dept officers, AISD Police receive the same across the board increases like all AISD employees. In the 2015 Budget our Board approved a 3% across the Board and more than likely we will offer at least another 3% salary increase in this year’s budget. This impending action will bring our District closer to the market salary range for school district police officers (on average making 5-8% more than AISD police). Unfortunately, our District continues to face many budgetary challenges largely impart to the ongoing recapture payments as a Chapter 41 District. This year, our anticipated recapture payment will increase to $385 million, and over the next 4 fiscal years, we will lose nearly $ 2 billion to the State. Like all of our AISD employees, our AISD Campus Police provide a tremendous service to our 84,000 students and 130 campuses. But the reality is they too have had to do more with less pay.  Affordability issues continue to impact retention of employees across the District, including our AISD campus police officers. As a reminder, we lose at least 800 teachers and 15-20 principals annually largely because of the lack of competitive salaries. Our Board remains committed to seeking creative and innovative solutions to address our ongoing budgetary shortfalls to ensure we invest appropriately in our human capital.”

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