Monday, October 22, 2018

Sheriff: Putting an officer in every school will cost Pinellas $23.6 million

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri met with the Pinellas County Commission today to discuss how to come up with an extra $23.6 million to fulfill a state mandate to  place a school resource officer in every school by July 1.

Gualtieri sent a letter to Monday to Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard advising him of the "dire need to resolve this funding issue as soon as possible."  A copy was also sent to the Pinellas County school district.

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According to the letter, there are about 50 school resource officers assigned to middle and high schools and none are assigned to elementary school. Gualtieri estimates that it would cost $20.1 million annually for 156 new SROs.

Broken down, that's 81 SROs for elementary schools, 18 for charter schools, 31 as substitutes for those on sick leave, training, vacation, off-campus duties, etc. Another 10 SROs are needed to properly staff high schools for a 1 to 1,500 ratio and 14 supervisors to watch over newly hired staffers.

The school district received $400,000 from the state to distribute to charter schools for safe schools, which serves as their buy-in to the overall plan to staff a trained SRO in every school.

The state's total contribution to the Pinellas County school district for keeping schools safe was increased to $6.1 million.  The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and municipal police departments contribute $1.6 million. That's a total of $7.7 million in available funding.

That leaves the district with a deficit of $12.4 million.

But wait, there's more: Gualtieri wrote that hiring more staff would also incur an additional one-time start-up cost of $11.2 million for new vehicles, guns, uniforms, computers and other equipment.

He clarified in his letter that the $12.4 million for the salary and benefits of additional SROs would be needed immediately. The start-up costs can be paid over a period of time and does not need to be funded up-front immediately.

"I don't know where this is going, but we have to prepare," Gualtieri told commissioners. "Someone is going to have to fund them."

He added, "Doing nothing is not an option."

Gualtieri said he has been meeting with police chiefs throughout the county. The chiefs, he said, are willing to provide officers to protect the schools within their borders, but they don't have the money to cover their costs.

Gualtieri said he supports the new law, but he prefers to have school resource officers on campus to be the first line of defense. School employees with weapons would provide back up during school shootings, he said.

"They would serve as good role as a back up," he said. "I still don't think it's wise to have them engage the active shooter."

The Pinellas County School Board has been adamantly against arming school staff, voting instead to pass a resolution that only trained law enforcement should have guns in schools.

Commissioners didn't approve any money Tuesday but said they plan to hold a workshop with the Pinellas County School Board to look for ways to pay the costs. Board chair Ken Welch said 2019 is the earliest the School Board could seek a referendum to increase millage rates to raise money.

Welch also said the county could loan the schools money until a referendum could take place.

Commissioners wondered what would happen if the county did not act.

"I'm not going to knock on that door to tell someone their 7-year-old was massacred," he said. "The penalty for not complying is we're all going to be held responsible."

Commissioner Pat Gerard blamed the Legislature for not shifting money to pay for school safety.

"The School Board doesn't have the money. The cities don't have the money. What makes us special that we can come up with $20 million?" she said.

At a Pinellas County School Board workshop Tuesday, school superintendent Mike Grego told board members that last week he met with Pinellas' local police chiefs to come up with a solution.

"What we don't know is, how do we pay for this?" Grego said. "We being a collective 'we.' I'm not trying to say this is only a 'we' where it has to be the School Board. This is about the safety and well-being of our community."

The district is already facing a budget shortfall when it comes to flexible spending. Pinellas is slated to only receive an increase of 47 cents per student, roughly $46,500 in total, in base student allocation funds which have no strings attached.

Those funds are often used for inflation costs and expenditures like contributions to the Florida Retirement System, Duke Energy bills, increases in health insurance and raises for teachers. To cover those fixed costs, the district is already slated to have a $5.2 million deficit.

Grego said he did not know how the district would come up with the additional funding needed in both dilemmas. He said district officials are conducting an annual review of how many instructional staffers are needed at each school and looking at how to save money between now and the end of the school year.

The state has chosen to roll back the required local effort rather than keep it flat, which would generate $16 million more for Pinellas because of rising property values. The district cannot levy more than that amount.

In an email to Grego, School Board attorney David Koperski said the district had no other option to raise its own revenue except to have a referendum. The district could increase the existing ad valorem tax operation or propose a new sales tax referendum.

Board member Peggy O'Shea brought up the idea at Tuesday's workshop, but the board did not discuss it.

Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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