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School district police force will stay, board members say

LARGO — Pinellas County schools will keep an internal police force rather than consider a proposal to outsource the officers, School Board members agreed Thursday.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the board his department could provide better service at a lower cost. School district officers would become sheriff's employees, and the three-year cost would be $1.9 million.

"You're getting more with this," he said.

Board members weren't convinced. Linda Lerner said she wasn't sure the savings — about $217,000 — was worth it. Janet Clark said she didn't see a reason to change the current setup for school resource officers. Under that arrangement, a 26-person internal police unit works in some schools and the district contracts with seven outside police agencies, including the Sheriff's Office, to cover the rest.

Only board member Robin Wikle expressed a strong interest in continuing talks with the sheriff.

The proposal came as a surprise to most board members. District officials kept it hidden until pressed for information Wednesday. The idea was listed vaguely under another agenda item, and the district didn't provide backup materials — including a draft contract — until a reporter requested them.

Board member Terry Krassner said she was caught off-guard. "Usually we know what's going to be on our agenda," she said.

Lerner told superintendent Mike Grego that "this doesn't follow our way of work."

Grego, who first met with Gualtieri in March, said his intention wasn't to mislead anyone. He wanted to discuss the idea with the board Thursday and never planned to release the draft contract. He did it to satisfy a public records request, he said.

"That was unfortunate that I had to send that," he said.

But Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, which promotes government openness in Florida, said holding back public documents from board members was troubling.

"If the superintendent is not giving these documents to the school board members until they walk into the meeting, how can they make an informed decision?" she asked. "And if he's doing that simply because he's afraid it's going to fall into the hands of the press or the public, then shame on him, because we have a right to know."

Several other major items on the agenda weren't put on the district's website until Thursday morning, including the proposed 2013-14 budget, the strategic plan and revised job descriptions. However, board members received those in advance.

Board members don't vote during work sessions, but chairwoman Carol Cook asked for a show of hands or a thumbs up Thursday to decide whether to pursue further discussions with the Sheriff's Office about outsourcing. The unofficial vote went against the sheriff.

Staff writer Lisa Gartner contributed to this story. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

School district police force will stay, board members say 06/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 12:13am]
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