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East County Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2018 2 years ago

Time to pay security tab in Manatee County schools

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School District, county search for funds for school resource officer program.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

At Braden River Middle School, Manatee County Sheriff's Deputy Carl McClellan seemed more like a celebrity than a school resource officer.

Eighth-grade students gave him high fives as he made his rounds April 12.

McClellan has been a school resource officer for a decade, the last eight at Braden River Middle.

“I feel like being in the middle school you can make a difference in their lives and get them headed in the right direction,” said McClellan.

The School District of Manatee County started the current school year with 15 Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies, called resource officers, assigned to its school campuses, with six at high schools, eight at middle schools and one at Manatee Technical College. The unit has one supervisor.

In response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, a law enforcement officer is now posted at every public school in the county.

Next school year, the district hopes to solidify those positions, adding 27 more SRO positions from the start of the 2017-18 school year, including 23 at elementary schools and four more at high schools, along with three additional supervisory positions to improve school safety for the district’s 48,600 students. The change would put an SRO at every public school.

Now somebody has to pay for it.

Through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, the Florida legislature in March approved more than $97 million toward efforts to prevent mass shootings like the one that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 in Parkland. The bill includes partially funding the hiring of more school resource officers, as well as physical security improvements to schools.

For Manatee County, that translates into $2.2 million toward SROs for the school district, up from about $1 million this year. Total cost for the new 30 positions in unincorporated Manatee County is estimated at $3.6 million, excluding equipment and other capital costs typically funded by impact fees. 

In a budget plan proposed by the school district, that would bring total costs for the district and Manatee County to $2.83 million each, compared with $892,069 for the school district and $1.16 million for Manatee County allotted for the current school year. The district's costs would be defrayed by the money received from the state.

Historically, Manatee County and the district have split the cost of SROs almost equally because SROs, deputies provided by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, are used in schools 180 days per year. The other half of the year, they work as patrol deputies in unincorporated Manatee.

Under the school district's proposal, Manatee County's required increase would be $1.16 million compared with the current school year. Now the county has to decide whether to accept those terms.

During a workshop April 10, school board members and county commissioners discussed the financial impacts of adding SROs to the schools. Both agencies will have to decide whether and how to fund the additional SROs during budget workshops this summer.

Manatee commissioners are not sure how or if they could absorb the cost.

“We are crashing and burning,” at-large Commissioner Carol Whitmore said, asking the school board to find a way to fund the entire amount it needs for SROs. “I can’t figure out a way to fund it unless we raise taxes.”

The safe schools legislation requires a “safe-school officer” at each school. Officers must be sworn law enforcement officers, although they do not have to be designated school resource officers. School District officials and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office believe SROs are the best solution.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells said his agency is already starting to recruit.

However, if funding doesn’t come through, the school district will have to consider alternatives.

“If the boards can’t find funding, the district will have to come up with another plan,” said Cynthia Saunders, the school district’s deputy superintendent of instructional services.

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