District police force will stay, Pinellas School Board says
The Pinellas County School Board rejected Thursday a proposal to contract out its internal police force.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri brought a draft contract to the school district that would have transferred the district police officers to his control for a three-year cost of $1.9 million. He argued that the School Board would maintain control, that officers wouldn't lose their jobs, and there would be a higher level of service and cost savings to the school system.
"You're not losing control," he said.
At least two board members, Terry Krassner and Linda Lerner, had strong objections to the idea. Krassner said it was important, when she was a principal, to be able to pick up a phone and immediately get a school resource officer. The officers added greatly to the school's operations, she said.
"To me, it's just been incredibly valuable," she said.
Board members Peggy O'Shea and Janet Clark said they wouldn't mind more conversation, although Clark said she didn't really see a reason to use sheriff's deputies. Board member Rene Flowers said she was more concerned about other issues, such as the graduation rate and the achievement gap. Only Board member Robin Wikle was strongly in favor of continued discussion with the sheriff's office.
Wikle said it was important to consider the potential cost-savings. The district pays about $1.9 million for salaries and benefits for its 26 officers each year. Michael Bessette, head of operations, put the actual cost savings much lower - a little more than $200,000 - when other factors were considered, such as having to keep dispatchers on staff.
Board members don't vote during a work session, but Chairwoman Carol Cook asked for a show of hands or a thumbs up. The unofficial vote went against the sheriff.
Several board members expressed concerns, too, about the manner in which the idea came to them. It was held back from board materials placed online before the meeting this week. (It was added to the website and sent to the board after The Gradebook complained.)
Acting police chief Rick Stelljes said conversations started in January.
"We've never heard a word about this," Krassner said.
Lerner said, earlier in the meeting, that the process didn't follow "our way of work."
Superintendent Mike Grego objected to that date during the meeting. Afterward, Bessette said an initial conversation did occur in January, but he wasn't sure who was involved. Formal discussions with the sheriff and superintendent began in March, Bessette said.