Saturday, November 18, 2017
Education

MaryEllen Elia says she wasn't trying to rush through Hillsborough school guard plan

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TAMPA — MaryEllen Elia could have asked the School Board before designing a plan to put armed guards in all of Hills­borough County's elementary schools.

But the school superintendent said she needed to order equipment and uniforms, recruit the guards and train them properly before putting them on duty.

And all of that takes months.

"I wasn't trying to rush this through," Elia told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Monday. "Really, what I was trying to do was to get something on the page to have a discussion."

Elia will ask the School Board today to vote on a plan that would cost $4.1 million next year and $3.7 million annually after that.

Board members had mixed reactions to her announcement last week that she has been working with law enforcement agencies on a plan to hire and train 130 officers and supervisors.

"She's stepping outside her role right now, big time," board chairwoman April Griffin said. "She's on a PR campaign. She's put the board in a very awkward position."

The officers would provide security, partly to allay parent fears that heightened with the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders in Connecticut.

The officers also would perform community policing functions, such as antibullying programs. It's a model already in place in more than a dozen elementary schools, Elia said.

Other features of the plan include physical improvements at schools where access needs to be more tightly controlled.

Elia compared her proposal with security at airports following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"I hated it when I had to go through the kind of security I had to go through to get on an airplane," she said. "But I liked that. I felt a little more secure."

The district has resource deputies and police officers in its middle and high schools. Since the Sandy Hook incident Dec. 14, local law enforcement agencies have been sending officers to the elementary schools, primarily during arrival and dismissal.

The $2 million needed to pay for this year's security improvements would come from a district contingency fund of almost $100 million. After that, the money would come from the district's operating budget, with hopes that the state or federal government would contribute.

Elia said the problem of school violence is complex, made worse by scarce resources to help people with mental illness.

Nevertheless, she said, "We think the world has changed and that this is a direction that is probably reasonable."

Board member Doretha Edgecomb agreed. "It's not ideal, and it's not my perception as a parent, former teacher and principal of how we run schools," she said. "But we have to face the reality that we are living in a very, very different world."

Edgecomb said that if Elia had moved more deliberately, "She would have been criticized for moving too slowly, for not responding."

Member Candy Olson said that she, too, respects Elia's right to propose the plan.

But, she said, "I do think the commitment to have security in our elementary schools long-term is one that needs to have a longer conversation."

Member Cindy Stuart took issue with Elia's timing, and the fact that she held a news conference.

"I'm hearing mixed reactions on both sides and a lot of questions I don't have answers to," Stuart said. "And now in the community, people think this is a done deal."

Elia's proposal comes as the board prepares to discuss other sensitive issues, including efforts to improve exceptional student education safety in the aftermath of two student deaths.

"We have had some things happen in our own district that require us to spend some money to ensure the safety of our children," Griffin said.

Responding to an article in the Times on Sunday that showed Hillsborough's ESE aides earn less than those in many Florida districts, Elia said the Times findings could be affected by variables such as class size and employee benefits.

Elia said she resisted salary studies in the past because there wasn't money available for raises. But she said salaries are one of many things the district is considering in its ongoing ESE reforms, and she did not rule out conducting a study now.

"Aides are hard to find," she said. "And pay is an issue, but it isn't the only issue."

Elia also said that, in hiring a new general director of ESE, she'll look for a candidate who holds a state certification in special education. The last director, Joyce Wieland, had certifications in other areas, including elementary education and educational leadership.

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