TAMPA — It is perhaps the most divisive issue Hillsborough County school officials have faced this year: whether to put armed security officers in every elementary school in the nation's eighth largest school district.
But the School Board has yet to sit down for a lengthy discussion about a matter that put six of its seven members on the opposite side of superintendent MaryEllen Elia on Jan. 15.
Nearly a year has passed since that vote. There have been workshops, taken up largely by presentations from staffers and a consultant. The board resolved to consider Elia's revised plan before the end of 2013. It was to be put to rest Dec. 10, four days before the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings. Instead, it will be taken up Wednesday afternoon, four days after the anniversary.
The plan, if adopted, would put Hillsborough County in an unusual, if not unique, position where school security is concerned. After Sandy Hook, which cost 20 students and six adults their lives, many school officials and politicians contemplated tighter security in the schools. There was talk of arming teachers and principals. Teachers flocked to Saturday target training.
Many districts, including Hillsborough, installed cameras and buzzers to control access to schools.
But after a few months of added patrols by law enforcement, area districts largely reverted to their former security staffing arrangements.
In Hillsborough, school resource officers patrol the middle schools and high schools under contract with police agencies. That's not an unusual practice.
But here's where Hillsborough stands apart: Unlike some large school districts, which have their own police with full arrest powers, Hillsborough has armed officers who cannot make arrests. They are paid an average of $28,000, well below police officers and sheriff's deputies. They patrol in 19 elementary schools. They train with law enforcement, and district security chief David Friedberg contends that the other agencies give the district all the support they need.
Elia's plan, if approved, would have put the guards in all 146 elementary schools after four years. Their starting pay would be $12.21 an hour.
The price tag — $4.5 million a year when fully implemented, including equipment and leased vehicles — would double the security department's budget. Additionally, the district spends more than $4 million on its contracts with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department.
Critics say the money would be better spent improving the academic skills of poor and minority children, and preventing violence through better psychological, social work and guidance services.
Supporters say that no matter how much money is spent in these areas, students and staffers face frequent disruptions from irate parents and crime in neighborhoods around the schools.
"We need to provide safe and secure campuses where our faculty is comfortable to teach and children are comfortable to learn," Friedberg wrote in response to criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Elementary school principals unanimously endorsed Elia's revised plan this year. But some School Board members have had questions for Elia and her staff — which they have discussed in one-on-one sessions.
Wednesday's special meeting at school district headquarters, 901 E Kennedy Blvd., is scheduled for 2 p.m. The agenda includes the hiring of a consultant to help the district buy school buses. That issue also has been controversial, and it is ahead of the security plan on the agenda.
The board is also scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. for a workshop on district policy and way of work.
Check back with Tampabay.com throughout the day for updates.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.