TAMPA — It's been a moving target since Dec. 14: What is the best way to keep the Hillsborough County public schools safe, and who should pay for those efforts?
A possible answer appeared Tuesday in the form of a letter from Sheriff David Gee. Join me, he suggested, in applying for federal money to hire 24 school-based deputies.
The School Board voted unanimously to go for the grant.
Money would come from the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services office. It would pay an unspecified amount up to 75 percent of the cost of hiring deputies for three years.
It's not known how much the school district would pay, or what would happen when the three years are up.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said that by supporting Gee's application for the grant, she is not committing the district to accepting it if the terms are not favorable.
The district has wrestled with security questions ever since the December school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Shortly after the killings, the Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department assigned patrols to elementary schools, primarily during arrival and dismissal times. But their commitment was not intended to last beyond this school year.
A multimillion dollar plan by Elia to beef up the district's own security force was rejected in January by a skeptical board.
Since then, officials have been discussing their alternatives with a security consultant.
Board member Candy Olson said she hopes that, though the new deputies would be law enforcement officers, they could take more of an educational role in the elementary schools.
"Our elementary schools need help with kids who have behavior problems," she said. "These children come in with no knowledge about how they're supposed to behave in school, or very little knowledge."
Gee indicated in his letter that experience of the last five months has demonstrated the need for security.
At least twice, he wrote, the deputies have held off intruders who appeared to be armed.
Less noticed, he wrote, was "the important connection between the deputies and the thousands of young children that resulted from informal encounters every day."
The application is due May 22, and Elia is also consulting with police Chief Jane Castor.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]