Should someone be assigned to direct traffic in the school zone at Northside Elementary on North Congress Boulevard? If so, who should be responsible for the cost and liability, the City of Smithville, the County, or Board of Education?
The Smithville Mayor and Aldermen discussed this issue Monday night after two concerned citizens, Erlene Howard and Bruce Curtis addressed the city board about the traffic congestion at the school as parents drop off their children in the mornings and pick them up in the afternoons.
Curtis warned that wrecks are bound to occur in that school zone, unless the problem is addressed. "We're looking at having a major accident there. Parents are lining up, coming to drop their kids off in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon. They're lining up off the road all the way down as far as the medical center. But when the parents are trying to come out, you can't see around the cars that are trying to come in. No one is able to stop the traffic. It's takes as long as five to ten minutes or longer sometimes to get out because of that traffic area. It's going to cause a wreck right there."
Howard asked who would be responsible if there were a wreck there, the city or the county." It's a county school in the city, who would be responsible?"
City attorney Vester Parsley, Jr. responded that it would not necessarily be either the city or county, but "the person who's negligence caused the accident. There are speed zones posted there."
Chief Richard Jennings explained that the police department once assigned officers to direct traffic in the school zones, but problems arose when those officers would often have to leave the school zones or not show up at all in order to answer other calls. To address that problem, the city hired two civilians to direct school traffic, but those positions were eliminated in budget cuts last year. "Years ago the city did provide the officers to direct traffic out there as a courtesy. But our calls for service got so heavy that when the officer would go in the morning (to school zone), a lot of times he didn't get there because our priority is we have to answer the calls of service as they come in. So he either didn't get there at all or would have to leave early. We addressed that problem by hiring two civilian personnel to direct traffic out there. One of them happened to be a constable. They took care of Northside and the High School. But in last year's budget the economic downturn required the City of Smithville to cut the police department's budget and those two positions were removed from the budget. Prior to doing that I met with the school superintendent to discuss the fact that the police department was going to have to discontinue this service. The school superintendent agreed that it was the school board's responsibility to furnish people to direct traffic out there and he said they were going to put the money in the budget to do that. But for some reason they were unable to get it in the budget that year. I thought it would be in their budget this year but for some reason it's not. I think the mayor did write a letter to the school board and the principals stating far in advance that we were going to discontinue this because of budget cuts. The only way we could do it is if we reinstated those two part time positions and hired civilian people to get out there and direct traffic. That would be cheaper than paying off duty police officers overtime."
Alderman Shawn Jacobs said this is an issue for many citizens and believes the city should try to resolve it. "I've had probably eight parents bring the subject up to me. I fully agree with what Chief Jennings is doing now. I've always thought that it's not efficient to have on duty police officers out of their cars directing traffic when they are actually subject to being called somewhere else. I also agree that in all probability it's a county responsibility, but in light of the fact that the city has done this for so long and because the school year is already underway and to keep this from getting pushed away and delayed more often, I would like to see us get an off duty officer or a constable or somebody out there to direct traffic at Northside for a couple of hours a day. I've estimated (the cost) around $3,000 to $3,500 for a year. I think that's the school (Northside) that has the worst problem. I've not heard any complaints about the other schools and I think the (other) school zones are working fairly smoothly. Even last year I heard complaints about Northside, that it was really becoming a bad situation. Regardless of whose responsibility it is, I would hate to see an accident. We're here to serve the public's interest and the fact that folks are having to wait five to ten minutes to get back on the road is an inconvenience. A lot of these folks are trying to get to work. I just think it would be wise for us to consider trying to handle this one school zone. I wouldn't recommend that we do the others at this moment."
Alderman Steve White suggested a meeting between city and county or school officials." It's a safety hazard and a problem that needs to be addressed. Maybe we should address the school board or county and see why they haven't funded it and whether they are going to later. I think we should talk to the county and school board"
Both Alderman W.J. (Dub) White and Mayor Taft Hendrixson mentioned that perhaps the city and county or school board could share the expense.
Alderman and Police Commissioner Aaron Meeks said he would contact the Director of Schools about a meeting to discuss the issue.