O'Fallon Progress

O’Fallon to no longer fund Crossing Guard Program

Collinsville Police Chief Eric Van Hook.
Collinsville Police Chief Eric Van Hook.

There will be no city-sponsored Crossing Guard Program in O’Fallon, starting this fall.

The City Council on Monday decided to discontinue funding and administering the program after a 11-3 vote.

Ward 2 Alderman Robert Kueker, along with Ward 4 Aldermen Herb Roach, who recently announced his candidacy for mayor against incumbent Gary Graham, and Matt Smallheer voted to keep the program which has come under fire in recent weeks.

O’Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook told the public safety committee on June 13, the city had three options to consider, including:

▪  remaining status quo;

▪  fund the program and have schools administer it;

▪  the city no longer funding or administering the program.

Van Hook said if O’Fallon wants to reinstate the Crossing Guard Program, it cannot be administered with anything other than 100 percent coverage.

“Based on the findings presented, this will require a significant increase in manpower to ensure all locations are covered 100 percent of the time,” he said. “The financial costs associated with 100 percent coverage, will result in a financial increase of an additional 25 percent to 50 percent or more.”

The Public Safety Committee on June 13 voted 4-2 to reinstate the program.

“The unfortunate reality is the Crossing Guard Program is a broken program. The city has expressed its concerns regarding the cost and administration concerns to the school districts since 2009, and they have expressed no interest in the administration of the program,” Van Hook said. “It is clear the great majority of crossing guard programs are administered by school districts, not police departments, even when a city funds all or a portion of the program.”

In 2015, the Crossing Guard Program cost about $75,000, O’Fallon City Mayor Gary Graham said.

O’Fallon has administered a crossing guard program for at least 25 years.

But since 2009, the city has only offered a crossing guard program to O’Fallon District 90 and St. Clare schools.

Van Hook stated this is not a new issue and the school districts were informed of the city’s position on the Crossing Guard Program in 2009. In 2009, a crossing guard survey was conducted due to the increased administration time and cost associated with administering the Crossing Guard Program.

As a result of the data collected four of the 11 crossing guard locations were eliminated, including the lone crossing guard at Central School in western O’Fallon.

Ward 3 Alderman Kevin Hagarty, who works as probation officer for the St. Clair County Probation Department, was among the 11 aldermen who voted against the city administering and funding the program. Just a week earlier, Hagarty voted to keep the program status quo.

Hagarty said he voted on Monday to discontinue the program in lieu of the June 14 armed robbery at Dollars 4 Gold Store in O’Fallon. Hagarty said that incident took a number of local police officers off of the street, and the police ended up catching one of the suspects. But another suspect remains at large.

“Since then, I have been thinking about (the crossing guard) issue,” he said.

While Hagarty said he is all in favor of public safety, he told the City Council their decision should not be based on emotions.

But he started to question the city’s participation after he heard District 90 Superintendent Carrie Hruby speak at the Public Safety Committee meeting on June 13.

Hruby told the committee that her district has no interest in administering the Crossing Guard Program even if the city helped partially funded it.

Hagarty said he is now troubled that police officers had to fill in when a crossing guard did not report to work and a replacement had to be found. He questioned what would have happened if June 14 armed robbery occurred during the school year, and whether or not police would been able to apprehend one of the suspects almost immediately.

District 90’s stance

Hruby emailed a letter to District 90 parents on Monday of last week prior to the public safety committee meeting.

Her letter came two days after Graham recommended to the City Council that it reinstate the crossing guard with the city picking up $42,000 of its cost.

Hruby stated District 90 was aware of the city’s plans to eliminate its crossing guard program next year.

“It was explained to us that the decision was made based on many reasons including financial, but mostly the difficulties in filling the positions, and administrative issues in oversight,” she stated. “The details of these difficulties are outlined in a report prepared by the O’Fallon Police Department.”

Hruby pointed out that police in its report stated that on many days the positions were not filled during absences or when the department was unable to find applicants.

“Because crossing guard absences and vacancies are difficult to fill, the city has resorted to pulling officers for this duty which leaves the police department short-handed elsewhere,” she added.

“For the same reasons outlined in this report, District 90 has significant concerns regarding our ability to add a crossing guard program to the services we provide. Like the police department, the district would have difficulty filling the positions or covering for absent guards,” she stated.

“As our teachers and staff can attest, we already have difficulty finding subs for teacher absences, aide vacancies, and noon-hour supervisor absences. We work hard to make those a priority and cannot shift our focus and energy to finding subs for crossing guards. The district does not have the capacity to take over this program from the city,” she stated.

Hruby stated is the district’s understanding the city plans to place additional flashing stoplights at these intersections, patrol the areas more frequently, and help educate our students on safe ways to cross the street.

“We encourage parents to help their children practice crossing safely,” Hruby stated. “Parents also have the option to enroll their children in our before and after care program if it is a viable alternative for their family.”

Hruby noted in her letter each of the elementary schools has a before and after care program that is staffed from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Parents may drop off and pick up between those times.

“We feel it is important that parents understand the city’s plan and prepare for it, which is why we will continue to work closely with the police department regarding communication,” Hruby stated.

Other options

Hagerty reminded the City Council of his April 4 recommendation to use some of its video gaming revenue to install more solar lit stop signs at crosswalks. Hagarty’s proposed amendment to the city’s $67.7 million budget failed by one on the council floor. The amendment would have needed a simple majority of the vote to pass.

“This could still be accomplished at intersections manned by crossing guards,” Hagarty said.

Hagarty said the city now needs “to think outside of the box” on the crossing guard issue.

“Children and their safety are a big part of this community and will always be a part of this community,” said Hagarty, who referred to a recent study completed by the police.

Van Hook said 11 police agencies and three Missouri police agencies were contacted for Crossing Guard Program data.

Seven out of the 11 Illinois police agencies do not administer/manage a Crossing Guard Program. The Crossing Guard Programs within these police jurisdictions are managed and funded 100 percent by the local school districts. These seven police agencies included Collinsville, Edwardsville, Troy, Lebanon, East St. Louis, Alton and Fairview Heights.

All three Missouri police agencies — Ferguson, Hazelwood and Florissant — indicated that they do not fund and/or manage a Crossing Guard Program, he said.

Van Hook said if the city decides to continue to fund the Crossing Guard Program, it should be administered by the school districts.

“The school districts will benefit from the city’s funding of the program, and the city will benefit from increased availability of command police officers, patrol officers and community service officers by being relieved of the administration of the program,” he said.

Hagarty said the school districts were put on notice and that they should come up with a plan to take the Crossing Guard Program back.

Opinions vary

Roach said no one in all of the discussions about the program has said having crossing guards is a bad idea. He said anything the city does, the city has some liability.

But he believes the issue all boils down to who is in the best position to fund and administer a Crossing Guard Program.

“Is it the school or the city?” he asked.

Roach said District 90 has said they can’t afford to do it.

“I think we definitely have management talent to manage this process,” he said. “And maybe it needs to be revamped how we do it. But I have no question that our police department or some other department can manage it.”

Roach said he was pleased by Van Hook’s comments (at last week’s public safety meeting) if by the city no longer funds or administers the Crossing Guard Program, he and his department will handle it.

“It will be handled differently and it will be handled well,’” Roach recalled Van Hook saying. “I believe him. I think he will find a way to run the program efficiently, and he will find a way to do it well. That made me feel good when he said it’s going to be done right.”

Roach said the city could use other sources now to run the program, whether it’s other part-time non-officers or volunteers.

“I think now that this out in the open, we might see more people volunteer,” said Roach, who volunteered to serve as a backup crossing guard.

“If I am going to error, I am going to error on the side of safety. I encourage the city and schools to continue with the discussions so long term we can come to some a resolution that is not only safe for the kids, but is the most cost effective program for the community.”

Ward 5 Alderman Mike Bennett said it seems to him this is a school district issue.

“I don’t think the police department should be burdened with it,” he said.

Instead, he believes organizations like the Parent Teachers Organization and other parents “should step up” and help with the program. Bennett referred to a 2015 feasibility study completed by O’Fallon Police Captain Mick Hunter. The report revealed there were seven locations which the Crossing Guard Program attempted to provide coverage. Each location required a crossing guard be present approximately   1 and 1/2 hours in the morning and 1 and a 1/2 hours in the afternoon.

Bennett noted the city has multiple grade schools in town besides those in District 90. He said if the city decided to fund the program, he’d like to see the city fund it lowering incremental rates annually, so the school districts can start to take over the program and fill it with volunteers over the next year or two so the city can get out of the business.

“But I’m not in favor of putting it back in the police department’s lap,” he said.

Kueker said he believes the Crossing Guard Program is worth keeping.

“I see it is as being the city’s job to get the kids to school, and the district’s job to educate them,” he said.

Smallheer said the Crossing Guard Program was a “bargaining chip” the city had when the city established the downtown Tax Increment Financing district last year. Smallheer alleges that Graham threatened to pull programs from the schools like the Crossing Guard Program if the schools failed to support the aforementioned TIF district.

Graham questioned who made such a statement and where it was made.

Smallheer said it happened “in this very room” (the council chambers) and the statement was made by Graham.

Graham reminded the council that District 90 tax base is larger than the city’s tax base.

Ward 5 Alderwoman Courtney Marsh said she is a mother of four children. Three of her children attend Central Elementary in District 104.

“Could we use crossing guards?” she rhetorically asked. “Probably.”

But Marsh said kids still have to walk to school each day and need to look both ways.

“But I also believe police shouldn’t have to administer this,” she said. “There is too much going on for our police officers. I would not want something to happen in our city with one of officers if he has no police officer to back him up.”