Harrison Elementary second-graders worked on a special project Thursday afternoon: writing letters to Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council asking them to save the Safety City youth education park off Red Mile Road.
Harrison students had visited the park at lunchtime Thursday and had a blast learning about traffic and pedestrian signals, and driving mini-cars around an area meant to simulate downtown Lexington.
One youngster leaned back on the concrete amphitheater steps and surveyed the tiny streets, cars and building facades. "I wish I lived in Safety City," he said.
"As teenagers and adults these kids remember this field trip the most," said teacher Kathy Ryburn.
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Both Safety City and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program — better known as DARE — are among the services that might be cut as Lexington's police department tries to balance its budget.
The Urban County Council is considering the recommendations of various department heads, including police Chief Ronnie Bastin, as it attempts to deal with a $27 million deficit in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts described the proposed cuts as "conjectural at this point," but Susan Straub, the mayor's spokeswoman, was more blunt: "This is more a staffing issue than anything else."
Straub said Bastin needs to move officers assigned to DARE and Safety City into patrol shifts. Safety City works primarily with elementary schoolchildren to teach them the importance of using seat belts, and pedestrian and bicycle safety.
Officer Aaron Kidd said the primary expense for DARE and Safety City is the officers' time. The only additional expense for Safety City for the fiscal year ending June 30 was $2,975 for a lawn mower and cleaning supplies.
The pint-size town cost $350,000 to build in 1989.
Officer Mike Burton, who has taught with the Safety City program for four years, said teachers already are requesting trip times for the 2011-12 school year.
"It's something they all look forward to and something the kids can look forward to," he said.
Suzanne Ray, administrative dean at Cardinal Valley Elementary, said Safety City "teaches many things that children don't receive at home sometimes."
If the program is cut, schools could incorporate similar material into the physical education or general classroom curriculum, Ray said.
The DARE program "does make the police very approachable," she said. "The DARE officer was very well-liked, and it was something the students really looked forward to."
Fayette County became the first Kentucky school district to implement the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in all elementary schools in 1987.
DARE spread across Kentucky in the 1980s, at one time being taught in more than 100 counties. Although some researchers questioned whether it worked to deter drug use over the long term, DARE made a comeback in popularity during the last decade, updating its curriculum to include bullying, gangs and warnings about prescription drug abuse.
In addition to dropping DARE and Safety City, Lexington police may also cut funeral escorts and a variety of other community services.