LARGO — Every school year the retirees in neon vests and yellow gloves shepherd hundreds of students across the street each day. They will still be there next school year, even if the City Commission approves a proposed 10 percent cut to the crossing guard budget.
But parents of children who walk to school might want to make sure their children aren't running late in the morning or dawdling after school.
The $36,000 cut to the crossing guard budget is part of the Largo Police Department's attempt to help the city reach its budget-cutting goal without having to cut police officers. Sgt. George Edmiston, who oversees the crossing guard program, said he hopes to achieve the cut by shortening some crossing guard shifts.
Every school day, 37 crossing guards are on duty at 28 posts across the city. Edmiston tries to work it so guards are there 45 minutes before the morning bell and 15 minutes after, and 10 minutes before the afternoon bell and 50 minutes after. He may trim some of those shifts at several posts next year, but he won't know where until the 2012-13 school year starts and he gets updated numbers about how many kids are crossing at each post.
"The goal is to not shut any posts down," Edmiston said. "We probably won't be available for the early birds or the stragglers, though."
Chief John Carroll agrees the cuts shouldn't affect student safety. But he wonders if the structure of the crossing guard program in Pinellas County — each of the municipalities and the Sheriff's Office are responsible for guards, not the school district — is inefficient.
"They do a great job," Carroll said of Largo's crossing guards. "I'm just not convinced this should be the city of Largo's responsibility."
Largo's crossing guards get paid between $11 and $14 per hour. The program cost the city $350,000 this fiscal year. The Clearwater Police Department pays its 72 guards $10 per hour. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's 129 guards earn $24 per day. In St. Petersburg, the department of engineering and capital improvements oversees the city's 75 crossing guards, who make between $7 and $9 per hour.
In each of those jurisdictions, someone must do what Largo's Edmiston does: use information about where students live in relation to their school, traffic data and student head counts by crossing guards to determine which streets need guards.
While Carroll would like to see someone spearhead a countywide approach, Michael Bessette, the school district's associate superintendent, says he's never heard a peep about taking guard responsibilities away from the cities.
"I've never had a municipality want to give up jurisdiction," said Bessette. "I suppose it's something that could be looked at."
While Edmiston doesn't want to close a crossing guard post, he didn't rule it out. Some posts are swarmed by scores of kids every morning, but some get just a handful. The guard at Cambridge Drive and Highland Avenue counted just one child in the morning and two in the afternoon the last time Largo had a head count. There is a new charter school opening not far from there this fall, though, so Edmiston will wait for the first head count after school opens to make any decisions.
In the event he does decide to close a post, Largo police will notify the school district and keep the post open for two weeks so word can circulate.
Mayor Pat Gerard trusts Carroll when he says the crossing guard program can absorb the cuts.
"The chief has told us that it's doable, and I trust that he wouldn't endanger little children," Gerard said.
City commissioners won't get the same answer, though, if they ask for more cuts in the program next year.
"After this year, we've done all the trimming we can," Edmiston said. "Then it would probably become a safety issue."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.