A proposal to add a school resource or liaison officer employed by both the Waxahachie ISD and the county would ideally boost attendance rates and ease hefty case loads in Ellis County Justice of the Peace Precinct No. 2, supporters say.

County officials have expressed concern, however, that the costs of such a program could get out of hand.

Pct. 2 Constable Terry Nay requested the new position as part of his department’s budget at the Commissioners Court budget hearings in June, describing a deputy constable with both civil and criminal authority to help cut down on truancy in the district.

“What the person will do is strictly be an attendance officer — help us with our attendance and help us track down these students who are not in school,” WISD Superintendent Tom Collins said. “All we’re doing is looking at it, nothing has been finalized.”

WISD maintains about a 96 percent attendance rate, Collins said, but with an exploding school population, that means more individual students are missing class.

Documentation provided by Nay indicated that the number of failure to attend/parent contributing cases filed by his department for WISD has increased by more than 100 percent since the 2005-2006 school year, up from 204 in the 2005-2006 school year cases to 548 in the 2006-2007 school year.

The Justice of the Peace Precinct No. 2 reported 608 cases filed for truancy between the Italy, Avalon, Maypearl and Waxahachie ISDs.

Nay attributes the dramatic increase to a combination of population growth and changes in state law that lowered the number of missed days before a student is classified as truant and required schools to report truancies sooner, though the second change has since been repealed.

“We’re just trying to keep up with it,” Nay said, noting that the constable’s office already handles all truancy cases in Precinct 2.

Having a truancy focused officer would help prevent, rather than simply react to, student absences, he said.

“Instead of just trying to hand out a cure, you can take a more preventative role,” he said.

Collins supports the proposal, though budget numbers will have to be carefully examined before any decisions are made, he said.

“We think it’s a great plan and we think it will help us,” he said. “Plus, it will help out the judge’s court - it helps both of us. If the county and the school district can do it financially, it would probably be a good situation.”

The new position has not yet been presented to the WISD board of trustees. The proposal is included in the county’s preliminary budget, with the county and the school district each shouldering half of the officer’s salary, benefits and retirement expenses under proposed agreements that would have to be signed by both entities, a county official said.

A draft of a memorandum of understanding regarding the proposal also calls for the school district to compensate the officer for overtime and Ellis County for the cost of fuel and maintenance of a patrol car, but to not be responsible for any training and certification costs.

Dennis Robinson, county commissioner Pct. 1, said the new position may create too great a budgetary strain on the county if other school districts wanted to participate.

“My concern is that all the school districts are treated fairly and if other school districts become interested in it that we offer the same opportunity to them as we do to the Waxahachie school district,” he said. “I just had concerns that if the school districts are interested in the program, then the (added) cost that we might have.”

Nay said Red Oak ISD and Midlothian ISD, two other large districts in the county, file their cases through municipal court and would need to work through their cities to create similar programs, though Ennis ISD, like Waxahachie ISD, files its cases through the county courts.

“Both courts have jurisdiction, it’s just wherever the district chooses to file the cases,” he said.

However, Nay believes the program would lead to reduced costs, and noted in his proposal that the school district suffers a $30 penalty for each day children fail to attend school and that any crimes committed by truant students lead to secondary costs for the community.

At the hearing, he noted the position could possibly be instated on a pilot program basis, during which time his office could collect statistics and evaluate the effectiveness of the plan before the county decides to establish it permanently.

“In the long run, it’s going to have a huge effect in that it’s going to save everyone money,” he said.

Even if the position is approved, more discussions and examinations would be required before adding the school resource officer position permanently, Robinson said.

“I think we could get some valuable information from it. Now, I don’t know whether those results would be something that we would want to continue after the first year,” he said. “I guess we’d have to wait and see.

“I’m not totally against the program, I just have concerns with it,” he said.

According to the proposal presented to the commissioners by Nay, the officer would be able to give full attention to finding and returning truant students to school, streamline truancy cases and help educate students about juvenile and young adult laws in Texas. The officer would spend most of his or her time off-campus, but could assist WISD security if needed. However, the officer’s duties and job description may change over time, Nay said.

“It’s going to be an evolving position and we’re going to have some challenges,” he said.

Joshua ISD in Johnson County has a school resource officer who focuses on promoting attendance and handling truancy cases, said John Grigsby, assistant superintendent for administrative services. The program varies from Nay’s in that the officer is contracted to the school district by the county rather than employed by both entities.

“We saw significant change the first two years,” Grigsby said, though he didn’t have specific numbers available. “This year we think we weren’t as pleased as we’ve been, but we don’t know exactly why. … We were a little disappointed in the numbers, but they weren’t bad.”

Overall, Grigsby said the program has been a beneficial one.

“I think it’s absolutely essential,” he said, noting one of the biggest benefits of the officer is saved time and energy for school administrators to focus on the campus. “I think it’s a great program. I think it’s one of the reasons why as a district we’ve gone from being an acceptable district to recognized. We’ve been able to divert some jobs to specialists and it allows us to get our assistant principals to deal with kids and to work with kids, work with those teachers. I think it’s making a difference.”

If Nay’s proposal is approved by the commissioners, an officer will begin duties for the 2007-2008 school year, he said. The current plan would give the county and the school district equal voice in choosing the new personnel.

“Hopefully it will be a successful program,” he said.

E-mail Kelsie at kelsie.hahn@waxahachiedailylight.com