Dealing with a tight deadline and not enough money, the Pinellas County school district is veering from its plan to place sworn law enforcement officers in every school, opting instead to hire designated security guards for some positions.
Superintendent Michael Grego confirmed Friday that the district is pursuing what he called a "stop-gap measure" to comply with a new state mandate by the start of the next school year while giving the district’s in-house police department time to hire more people. School Board members will vote on the plan at a special meeting on May 22.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the security officers will go through background checks, psychological screenings and rigorous training through his agency. Grego emphasized will be devoted to defending the school, similar to a plan rolled out this week by Hillsborough officials.
"We’re not arming anyone that’s currently working," he said. "These are specific security officers that will go through this training (and) will not have another job on these school sites additional to that."
The decision comes amid a standoff between local governments over who would pay for the multimillion-dollar endeavor to add dozens of school resource officers and deputies, primarily to elementary schools.
The legislative mandate, passed in response to February’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, requires that Florida’s school districts place armed guards in every school.
Pinellas School Board members opted to fill the positions with sworn law enforcement. The district reached out to the Sheriff’s Office and city police departments to help fund the effort.
Largo and Pinellas County declined, leaving the School Board on the hook for 32 elementary and five high schools in their jurisdictions that need either a first or second armed guard. The Sheriff’s Office staffing alone would have cost the county an additional $2.7 million.
Faced with the daunting and expensive task of hiring the officers needed to fill the gap, Grego and Gualtieri, who, along with the School Board, must authorize use of security officers, changed course.
"This is the only thing to do," the sheriff said Friday. "They (the School Board) are not going to fund it. The county’s not going to fund it. There’s no other option."
Grego said the "two-pronged approach" will give the district more flexibility on a tight deadline. He’s aiming to hire 40 armed guards through some mix of police and security officers. The latter will make $18 to $20 an hour. District police officers make $20 to $22 an hour. Which schools will get which protection is yet to be determined.
The goal is still to have law enforcement officers in every school, either through the district police department or through partnerships with city police departments, Grego said. But the district may have more slots to fill either this school year or next depending on direction from other cities.
Tarpon Springs and Gulfport have agreed to hire new school resource officers, taking them out of the mix.
St. Petersburg has proposed taking cops off the street to fill the spots, although Chief Anthony Holloway said he’s meeting with Mayor Rick Kriseman on Monday to further discuss options. Pinellas Park Council members also gave the nod this week to cutting officers elsewhere to staff their schools, but only for a year. Clearwater is undecided, although the City Council favored at a recent work session a plan to hire part-time officers.
Reached Friday, School Board members seemed supportive of the idea, but only as a temporary solution.
"As a stopgap measure, it may be the best thing," board member Carol Cook said, adding that she’d still prefer to have school resource officers.
Board member Peggy O’Shea said she understands the pinch local agencies are in when it comes to the school safety staffing mandate.
"We understand it’s a lot of money for all of them. It’s a lot of money for all of us too, and it has to be done in a very short time," she said. "If the sheriff doesn’t want to do additional schools, that’s fine, we’ll take it on. We will increase our schools’ police over time to cover it."
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.