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Schools chief Elia optimistic about federal funds, safety improvements

TAMPA — Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Friday that she was not surprised the School Board didn't approve her $3.7 million-a-year school security plan.

Hearing the reactions when she described the plan to board members by phone, it was clear she would get resistance.

"There were some unanswered questions. There were. And we knew that," she told the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa.

Still, Elia is optimistic that, with board approval and funding from the state and federal governments, she will be able to make the schools more secure.

Gradually, she said, she expects access will be tightened at the 10 percent of schools that need work. Eventually, she hopes to expand the security guard program now in place at 19 elementary schools.

"I know that our world changed on 9/11, and our world changed on Dec. 14," she said, referring to the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Elia's remarks came just days after the board declined to spend $4.1 million in 2013-2014 and $3.7 million a year after that for a program that would have hired and trained 130 security personnel. Under that scenario, there would have been an armed guard or officer at every school.

While those dollars would have been built into the budget, an initial $2 million would have come from the district's reserve account, which the board has guarded carefully even in the leanest of times.

The only piece of the plan members approved was an $8,500 contract with nationally known school security expert Michael Dorn. They also directed Elia to form a task force on security, not unlike the work group now addressing safety issues in exceptional student education.

Elia was encouraged when the White House announced Wednesday that President Barack Obama wants to make $150 million available nationwide for school resource officers, psychologists, social workers, and counselors.

She has already spoken directly with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the funding. "He said to me, 'MaryEllen, we just got it on paper. We're not sure how it's going to be released,' " she told the Tiger Bay group.

She hopes to get more funding from the state, although that is also uncertain for now. And she could not say how long it will take to form the task force.

One thing has moved forward: Dorn, the consultant, was in Tampa on Friday, meeting with district staff.

Board members were told they could call Dorn by telephone late in the day, something member Candy Olson had suggested during the board meeting.

Member Susan Valdes was not satisfied. "This board is disregarded and, I would say, disrespected a lot," she said.

Elia, however, said the board will make decisions on any steps the district takes.

She did not apologize for taking the initiative.

"As the superintendent of schools, one of my jobs is to put together a plan," she said.

When a guest at the luncheon pointed out that a lone security guard cannot guarantee a school's safety, Elia said, "Can I control everything? No. I know that. But that doesn't mean I'm not convinced that we need to keep our campuses as safe as we can."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Schools chief Elia optimistic about federal funds, safety improvements 01/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 11:37pm]
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