"This a plan for the elementary schools only," Safe Schools Coordinator Dennis McFatten said. "We want to provide the same level, if not more, to these schools."

The School District wants to establish its own security force at the elementary school level for the 2019-20 school year instead of paying the higher cost to law enforcement agencies to supply the officers.

School Board members asked the district during a Thursday work session to further explore the money-saving option that could be used to better secure elementary campuses. The money could be put toward the district's need for fencing, cameras and other equipment.

Safe Schools Coordinator Dennis McFatten said the savings would not put kids in jeopardy. In fact, McFatten said he believes their district would have the freedom to provide more officers on some elementary campuses when needed.

The district does not want to remove these certified officers, known as school resource officers (SROs), from the middle and high school.

“This a plan for the elementary schools only,” McFatten noted. “We want to provide the same level, if not more, to these schools.”

McFatten said an analysis of the current contracts with the Sheriff’s Office, Ocala Police Department and Belleview Police Department reveals that Marion is paying top dollar to provide 56 SROs at 51 schools and campuses.

According to a report he provided the School Board, Marion is paying an average of $66,000 for each of the officers. That is $20,000 more on average than six other counties of similar size and/or geographic location that the district examined. Those counties include Citrus, Manatee, St. Lucie, Seminole and Sumter. Hillsborough County pays $64,000, though those officers work all year, including summer programs.

The cost of each of the 18 SROs supplied by the Ocala police department is $76,984. The district pays the Marion County Sheriff’s Office $61,870 for each of the 37 deputies it supplies. The district pays $53,617 for the one officer that covers one school in its jurisdiction.

McFatten said the district can hire 42 security officers, including three supervisors, to replace 34 SROs located at elementary schools for less money and have more coverage. A 220-day district security officer would be paid $31,627, a year-around officer would be paid $37,378 and supervisors would be paid $48,922.

Currently, the district pays $3.7 million for the 56 SROs. That is $1.3 million more than what the state pays the district to provide all security, including fencing, cameras and other equipment needed to better protect the district.

The district could save $200,000 by creating its own force in the first year and more each year down the road. The reason is that the Sheriff’s Office, for instance, is projecting to increase its contract by at least 3 percent for 2019-20. The district projects the School District only 2 percent annual raises for the officers if the budget allows year to year.

Up until this year, the district paid $1.3 million for 18 SROs, one each at the middle and high schools. There were no security officers or SROs at elementary schools.

That changed under The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on March 9 in response to the Valentine’s Day school shooting that killed 17.

A shooting at Forest High School on April 20, which injured one student, escalated the conversation to better secure local schools. For the last month of the 2017-18 school year, the board approved the cost of adding an armed law enforcement officer at every school in the county.

The board decided over the summer to use SROs through 2018-19 and look at creating its own force at the elementary school level, a move that Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods has said he does not support.

By law, Woods would have to train the security officers and he fears that his department, as well as him personally, would be open to liability if a shooting should occur on one of the elementary campuses that uses a school district security force, Woods has said at School Board work sessions early this year.

McFatten said that the law is clear that each county sheriff must approve a school district plan. McFatten said Woods can reject the district’s plan.

“The sheriff has the ultimate power to say ‘no,’ ” McFatten told the board.

School Board member Nancy Stacy countered that “we need to know what he says before we can move forward."

McFatten said if Woods denies the plan then the district and the sheriff would then be in a tough SRO contract negotiation battle year after year.

“Every year the cost will keep going up,” said McFatten of the outside law enforcement proposed contracts.

McFatten said the SRO contracts over the last several years have increased by 6 percent. He added that the district can better control its costs by creating its own security force.

Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews