A new internal police force and higher school grades will make for an interesting year.
SARASOTA — The cafeteria at Fruitville Elementary School is a swarm of parents lugging plastic bags full of school supplies while students look excitedly around the room, buzzing with the feeling that school is beginning in just a few short days.
Fifth-grader Brayden Stanley eyes a sheet of paper pinned to a wall in the cafeteria, awaiting his fate. He scans the list, jumping past a friend or two, waiting to see his name. "Stanley," he reads, narrowing his eyes and following the line to his corresponding teacher. These are the people he will spend the rest of the year with, he thinks, before breaking into a wide smile.
He points to a name a few lines below his. "That's my best friend," he says, gesturing to the list.
Instantly, Stanley's fears are assuaged. He still has a shy grin, but now the first day of school will be all right, if only because he'll have a partner in crime to see it through with him.
On Monday, Sarasota County's 43,000 students will report back to the district's 53 schools. Although every student may not know it, the district has had a summer of big changes. Sarasota County Schools raised their A grade from the Florida Department of Education by four percentage points, firmly cementing all their middle and high schools as A and B-caliber. But that meant the six traditional public schools that earned C’s were all on the elementary level.
The district will also welcome more than 25 new staff members this year in the form of a new internal police department, an addition spawned from the state’s new law mandating an armed guard in every school after the Parkland shooting. The move has been controversial and led to a months-long feud between Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight and school Superintendent Todd Bowden, but Monday will mark the unveiling of the district’s preparations for the new force. Plans call for district police officers in every elementary, middle and high school by the 2019-20 school year.
Roughly 50,000 students will head back to school in Manatee County. They'll be spread among the district's 61 schools, which include 13 charter schools and Manatee Technical College.
For the first time, the Sarasota district also opened up its free Summer Learning Academies to rising kindergartners at every Title I school, or those schools with high percentages of students on free and reduced lunch. That number has been rising over the years, with 54 percent of Sarasota County students this year coming from families of four who make less than $45,510 a year. Those academies are intended to help students be prepared for their first day of kindergarten and eventually, as it expands to all low-income students in kindergarten through third grade, will help them combat loss of learning gains during the summer.
It will also be a big day for the district's top leader, Bowden. He, too, has some of Stanley's nerves, although most of those have been eased by what Bowden says has been a successful year and a half as superintendent.
“Any time you get a promotion or change jobs, there’s always that moment in which you say, ‘Am I ready? Can I do this job?’” Bowden said. “I think where the confidence comes from, a year and a half into it, we implemented some strategies that at the time people said, ‘Maybe you don’t want to do that.’ In your first year as superintendent, to see the gains that we made is kind of reassuring that we’re making the right decisions.”
Bowden pointed to the district's grade increase and the renewal of the one-mill, local-option property tax, which passed with the highest approval rating yet, as evidence of these gains.
"If anything is disappointing to me, it's that we could have achieved those two rather ambitious goals and yet there's still some sort of public debate about the leadership of the district," Bowden said, echoing a point some School Board Members have made while campaigning for re-election this summer. "We should be celebrating and building upon that."
But the dynamics of the Sarasota County School Board, which have often involved name-calling and in-fighting, have sometimes overshadowed the district's positive accomplishments in the public eye.
The move to an internal police force sparked tension from the start, coming off of Knight's decision to no longer split the cost of funding for school resource officers with the district. That choice, as well as a series of incendiary text messages exchanged between Knight and School Board Member Eric Robinson, led the School Board to pursue the internal police department, something that some other school districts in Florida have already employed.
The district agreed to a two-step plan that would have them staff internal officers in elementary schools this year and keep school resource officers from local law enforcement in middle and high schools for one more year. Those agreements were eventually negotiated with the district paying 80 percent of the cost.
The district has hired 12 police officers, two sergeants and one police chief for the internal force, but will staff the rest of the district's elementary schools with Sheriff's Office deputies and one Venice Police officer at Venice Elementary School. Bowden has said he expects all the elementary schools will be staffed by Sarasota County Schools police by this fall.
"The question I get asked most often is: Are they security guards, are they guardians or are they police officers?" Bowden said. "I don't think it's commonly known that school districts start their own police departments. People ask, 'Are those real officers?' Yes, they can arrest you and take you to jail. They are sworn law enforcement officers, and that's really the charge that the Board gave us."
He noted that the officers had an average experience level of 21 years and a total collective experience of 544 years between them. All 24 of the officers have been identified, he said, and are going through background checks. Fourteen of them came from the state of Florida, and 10 will come from out of state.
The district also lost one of its top administrators this summer, when longtime chief operating officer Scott Lempe retired from his post after more than 15 years with the district. He was a leading figure in school security talks and handled almost all of the district's decisions on capital improvements and facilities changes. He will be replaced by Jeff Maultsby, who previously worked as the director of business and economic development for Sarasota County. Maultsby has extensive experience in local government, although he does not have any experience working in a public school system, something Bowden said he took into account when hiring him.
"That's always the decision that you have to make. We could have gone in a different direction and maybe their learning curve wouldn't have been as steep, but their upside may not have been as high, either," Bowden said. "Jeff's got a very steep learning curve, but he's got a huge upside, and that's what drew us to him."
But for the students going back to school on Monday, and for many starting in Sarasota County Schools for the very first time, these issues will be far from their thoughts. Six-year-old twins Aarya and Amani Satia will start first grade at Fruitville Elementary after a year of schooling outside of the system.
They clustered around a chess board on Friday morning as students milled about their classroom, talking to their parents and the teacher. The sisters did not say much, but when asked if they were close, Amani instinctively reached out and placed her hand on Aarya's arm and smiled.
It seemed that they, too, would have a partner in crime on their first day of school. For many students on Monday, that will be enough.