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Future of liaison program in limbo?

School safety returns to the spotlight Monday when Red Wing city officials and school leaders discuss the future of a joint police liaison program.

Officials are wrestling with how to facilitate the long-running program in light of budget limitations facing both entities.

"It's really not a battle between the two, but budget constraints between both parties have led us to this," said Red Wing School District Supt. Stan Slessor.

That will likely mean one of three possibilities, he said, which includes reducing the district's police liaison staff from two to one.

"That option is still on the table," Slessor said.

School Board members also will explore the possibility of a one-officer staff bolstered by private security at either the high school or middle school, he said.

The third possibility -- retaining both officers -- is open, but riddled with complications, Slessor noted.

For one, it would cost the district more.

In May, the city asked the district to boost its funding from $30,000 to $58,000, Red Wing police Chief Tim Sletten said. That would have retained both officers, whose combined salaries total $127,337, according to city data.

"We tried to whittle it down to be as practical as we possibly could," Sletten said, adding that the city pays the remaining salary and all benefits.

But School Board members could be hesitant to spend more, given the fluctuating nature of state funding.

The district has been increasingly reliant on K-12 finance dollars in hopes of keeping a 2008 referendum promise to shrink class sizes. Fewer state dollars flowing into district coffers means either dipping into referendum funds, borrowing cash or making cuts.

"These are really abnormal times we're going through," School Board member Dennis Porter said of education finance.

Even if the district finds a way to fund the second officer, the city's police force remains in a pickle.

Sletten said the force is down three officers. A city hiring freeze has meant three vacancies have not been filled.

"The one thing I don't want is to create any more gaps in my patrol schedule," he said.

If push comes to shove, Sletten said the need for general patrol outweighs a second liaison officer.

The scenario becomes more precarious as city officials await word on federal grants, which could fund up to five officers' salaries.

City Council President Mike Schultz said the city isn't banking on all five grants -- the maximum provided under the program -- but it does expect some funding.

But those funds aren't guaranteed. If no grants come through, or if another round of state unallotment lies ahead, Sletten worries about the force shrinking even more.

"That's a level I don't want to get at," he said.

Still, no one involved in the decision is minimizing school safety.

Even if that means losing a liaison officer, Sletten said.

"That doesn't mean that we forget about the middle school," he said.

Safety remains at the forefront, Slessor said.

"I am confident we will reach a solution that will maintain a high level of school safety," he said.

Slessor said city officials are expected to present to the board at Monday's meeting. The board could take action on the matter at its first meeting in August.