Security will ramp up at elementary schools starting April 2, when off-duty deputies from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, Sarasota Police Department and the North Port Police Department will report to the district’s 21 unstaffed schools.
These deputies will staff the schools through May 24’s last day of classes before a permanent plan is solidified for the next school year.
As a longer-term solution, beginning in the 2018-19 school year, School Board members agreed Thursday to pursue basic-security deputies, not school resource officers, at the 12 elementary schools in the unincorporated part of the county next school year. In-town schools would likely be staffed by city or town police, pending agreements with those departments.
These deputies would be trained to provide security at schools, but not authorized to assist in other areas of the community. School resources officers currently staff middle and high schools, and provide instruction and mentorship as well as security.
The hope with these security deputies is that the Sheriff's Office would still be able to hire retired law enforcement officers or veterans, as under the school marshal program proposed earlier this year. However, these deputies would be in uniform, which is something that parents and other members of the community have said is important to them.
So far, the district agrees with implementing that program next year, but is at odds with Sheriff Tom Knight on how to fund it.
Hiring 14 security deputies to staff the 12 elementary schools would cost $1.1 million, according to a letter sent to the School Board on March 21. Combined with existing school resource officers, the cost is $2.6 million for the next school year.
For comparison, the other option — to hire 14 more school resource officers — would cost about $3.6 million.
As part of the proposal, the Sheriff’s Office is requesting that the district take on 100% of the funding associated with providing school security, which is alarming to board members.
The request comes after new legislation grants districts additional funding from the state for school security purposes. Sarasota County will receive $2.4 million in funding from the state, up from last year's $950,000. However, a portion of that will go to charter schools. Additionally, this week voters again approved an extra school tax that provides about $56 million in extra funding to the schools.
Board members Bridget Ziegler and Eric Robinson wanted to immediately begin identifying areas in the budget to cut. The rest of the board, however, wanted to wait to see if Sheriff Tom Knight would negotiate the cost sharing, or if the County Commission, which oversees the Sheriff's budget, would consider providing additional funding.
“I don’t particularly think it’s appropriate to not do the exercise and see where we are going to trim the fat,” Ziegler told the board at a March 22 workshop, which is an idea other board members opposed.
“You’re relatively new to this process,” Board Member Shirley Brown said. “I don’t think we need to start doing them yet because I think we still are in negotiations … I think they would look bad if they said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not going to provide half your SROs anymore, at a time when the need for SROs has escalated.’ I just can’t see other elected officials saying we’re not going to fund them anymore.”
Ultimately, the board directed Superintendent Dr. Todd Bowden to tell the Sheriff they support the security deputy plan, but would like to further explore cost-sharing opportunities.
Staffing elementary schools this year and next is just the first steps in the district's five-point school security plan. In addition, the district is investing $25 million in enhancing the physical and environmental structures of the schools.
The district evaluated its capital improvement program to find out what projects could be moved up to enhance school security. At one point, board members discussed a bond to pay for the improvements, but additional state funding made it unnecessary.
Further, the plan includes strengthening the capacity of the district's Office of Safety, Security and Emergency Management department, and finally exploring a school guardian program.
Under the new legislation, certain school employees, but not teachers, are eligible to go through a training program to carry a weapon on school campuses and act as security in the event of an active shooter on campus.
According to Bowden, the guardian program is not a priority right now for the district, but in the future he will explore options for arming school employees with unique backgrounds.