School Board aims to integrate district-managed police officers at elementary level
The Sarasota County School Board decided Tuesday to create and manage an internal school security department over the next two years, dramatically shifting course from earlier discussions about continuing and expanding a program employing sheriff's deputies and police officers from elementary through high schools.
Under the plan — a direct response to demands for increased security because of school shootings — the program would be phased in beginning this fall and completely implemented by the end of the 2019-20 school year, and will cost the district a total of about $3.1 million over those two years. The district plans to hire about 30 employees in the first year and 26 the following year, staffing their elementary schools with the trained and sworn law enforcement officers first and then adding them to middle and high schools.
For the 2018-19 year, Bowden will try to negotiate with local law enforcement agencies to retain the school resource officers in middle and high schools for that year while the district attempts to integrate their new, district-managed police officers at the elementary level. That will cost the district anywhere from an additional $1.4 to $2.5 million.
Three of the board’s five members, Caroline Zucker, Jane Goodwin and Shirley Brown, spoke highly during the meeting of the idea of an internal police department. The concept was compared to the college police forces that staff many higher education campuses.
“They will buy into the district and buy into the kids and keep those kids safer because they are responsible and they don’t report to anybody else but the school system,” Zucker said. “I like your plan for two years, because this gives you ample time to be able to put everything in place.”
Goodwin echoed that point, adding that the school police department employees could work with students after school and have a positive impact on their lives.
But School Board members Bridget Ziegler, the chairwoman, and Eric Robinson, were reluctant to quickly sign on to the new program, noting that it was a big task to undertake with only four months before the next school year.
Zucker, reflecting on previous criticism by Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight that the board was moving too slowly on security after the Parkland school shooting in February, countered one of Ziegler’s comments by saying, “We were told we’re moving too slow, and now we’re moving too fast?”
Ziegler responded that creating a school district police department was a significant change from policies in the past.
“If we’re going to go down the route of a police force, it’s dramatically different than anything we’ve done before,” Ziegler said. “… I just worry for something that big … that you would go too fast to create your own police department.”
Robinson worried about choosing an option because of its lower cost rather than its effectiveness.
"I find myself getting into this trap of which one saves the most money," he said. "But safety and security needs to be thought of, too. I just want to make sure we're not going with the lower-cost leader."
The district's head of school security, Michael Andreas, told Robinson that would not be the case.
"I assure you, if we move forward with this, we would obviously set the highest standards in every category," he said. "It's not about moving quickly or opting for the least expensive option. It's a comprehensive and sophisticated department that can serve the community."
Ultimately, the board advised Bowden to pursue the internal security department and talk with local government entities regarding agreements for next year. Bowden said he aims to have a lieutenant and internal police chief hired by the end of June, and he will have the board vote on job descriptions at the May 1 board meeting.
"I wholeheartedly endorse this," said Andreas, who will oversee the internal department. "I think it makes great sense for us for all the right reasons."
Although the district received about $2 million in total school security funding from the state following the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act this spring, it will have to cover a roughly $2.4 million deficit in funding for enhanced security the following year.
Bowden asked principals to suggest cuts to make by using 1 percent of their budget as one strategy, but board members decided to prioritize administrative cuts. Some of those changes include reducing custodial and bus driver positions.
"Don't take the 1 percent across-the-board cut reduction," Zucker said Tuesday. "These are things we cannot cut; we promised with the referendum that we would not touch them. They should not even be looked at."
While the cuts eliminate about $1.2 million from the deficit, it still leaves an additional $1.2 million, which will be funded from the district's reserves, Bowden said.
The meeting marked the first time School Board members and Bowden had met formally since text messages between Knight and Robinson became public. The texts appeared to show the two working to undermine the superintendent and ensure that the district paid 100 percent of the costs for school security.
In the weeks following the Parkland shooting, the district tentatively planned to continue its current use of sheriff's and police agency resource officers at middle and high schools and add lower-cost deputies to the district’s 22 elementary schools next year.
But tensions rose after Knight announced his department would no longer split the $1.5 million cost of deputies in middle and high schools after the district received the additional funding from the state. Later, the North Port and Sarasota Police departments added that they would also be asking the district to pay 100 percent of the cost of the officers they provide. Only the Venice police agreed to continue the current arrangement.
According to district chief operating officer Scott Lempe, the district previously had an internal police officer in order to access a national criminal information system, but it did not hire deputies for that department.