The Santa Barbara Unified School District will have drug detection dogs patrol secondary schools for another year, after the Board of Education narrowly voted Tuesday night to continue the contract with Interquest Detection Canines.

For the past year, Interquest has visited junior high and high schools to have dogs sniff all student cars in the parking lots and a few randomly selected classrooms. The dogs sit down to “alert” officials to controlled substances, and students are allowed to take their belongings — including backpacks — out of the classrooms before the dogs search them, which has made some question the effectiveness of the program. Superintendent Dave Cash said making students leave their belongings has been found to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment by multiple courts.

The program isn’t designed to deal with the root problem of drug use, but it’s a tool to keep drugs off campuses, administrators say.

Cash said the three high school principals want the program for another year to get more data and to see if the dogs are contributing to the decline in drug-related violations.

Data show that the number of controlled-substance violations hit a 10-year low last year, but the trend has been going down for three years.

School board president Monique Limon and board member Pedro Paz voted against the contract extension and raised concerns about the program’s effectiveness.

Limon said she has been concerned about the use of drug dogs from the beginning and voted against the program last year.

“It’s just not an investment I think I feel confident about,” she said Tuesday, adding that every board member wants to keep drugs off campus, but the dogs are “a tool that can’t even be used in its totality” since students can remove their belongings from the classroom before a search.

She and others also expressed concern about false alerts and residual odor, since the dogs can alert on a backpack even if it’s never been around a controlled substance.

Paz said he was concerned about the lack of data showing that the program works as a deterrent, especially since the program will cost $13,500 for the year. He said it’s largely luck that a dog or staff member finds drugs on a campus.

“I can’t make a decision based on data that’s not there,” Paz said.

Board members Gayle Eidelson, Ed Heron and Kate Parker voted to continue the contract and spoke supportively of the program. 

“I’m a firm believer that it keeps drugs off campus,” Heron said.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.