County commissioners say they’re not going to spend millions to put more deputies in schools, leaving the school district largely on the hook for the money to comply with a new state law.
It’s now up to the Pinellas County School Board to decide how to pay for deputies in 31 elementary and high schools in the Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction by the start of the next school year to comply with the mandate requiring an armed guard in every school.
"The responsibility for who pays for this is the Florida Legislature that created it and the School Board," Commissioner Janet Long said during a commission meeting, adding of the district, that she’s "sick and tired of constantly filling their gap."
State legislators passed the mandate in response to February’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. It requires that every school have an armed guard — not necessarily a law enforcement officer. However, Pinellas School Board members opted to require sworn officers.
But the looming question of who will pay remains. In March, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri put the bill at $26.3 million, including start-up costs such as cars and uniforms. The school district has reached out to seven agencies it already contracts with to provide school resource officers in middle and high schools: the Sheriff’s Office and police departments in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Gulfport, Tarpon Springs, Largo and Pinellas Park.
So far, the county and Largo have said no.
"If the School Board decides if they want to have police officers in school, they need to pay for it," said Largo Commissioner John Carroll, a former city police chief.
The district has offered to pay about $58,000 per officer or deputy. Superintendent Michael Grego, in a letter to the sheriff and police chiefs, also said the district’s in-house police department is willing to assume the responsibility within 18 months.
But Gualtieri cautioned against hiring new deputies only to get rid of them a year or two later. He also wasn’t willing to cut other services to fill the gap, as St. Petersburg has proposed.
"It’s their obligation to fund this,’’ he said. "They need to step up and do it."
In the Sheriff’s Office service area, the state mandate requires guards at 26 elementary schools. There are also four high schools that need second deputies because of their size and a new high school opening next year that needs one deputy.
The agency currently has a 20-person school resource deputy unit for 13 middle and high schools. With the state mandate, the sheriff told commissioners he would need to increase that to 68. That covers deputies for all the schools within the Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction, supervisors and extra deputies to cover for their colleagues who are, say, sick or in training.
With the School Board’s reimbursement, all the extra staffing comes out to an additional cost of $2.7 million, the sheriff said. He also pointed out the county is already paying about $1.3 million for the existing deputies to cover what the school district doesn’t.
That didn’t sit well with county commissioners. Several pointed out the School Board hadn’t done enough to assess its own methods of paying for the new officers, such as increasing the property tax or dipping into reserves. They also pointed out the county is facing a potential property tax cut in the form of an increased homestead exemption, a revenue hit the School District wouldn’t be subject to.
Schools spokeswoman Lisa Wolf did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. However, in response to Largo’s decision last week, she said the district would "increase the Pinellas County Schools Police force to make sure all schools, including Largo schools, are covered."
Grego provided a glimpse of other ways the district is juggling the situation at a Clearwater City Council work session last week. Those include slashing $2.5 million from classrooms, cutting some capital projects and funneling money from state allocations for hardening buildings and campus monitors.
"We are doing everything humanly possible to close that gap," he said.
All the hand-wringing brings up an ominous question: What happens without funding?
Gualtieri said there is only one bottom line:
"On the campuses of every school in this state including those in Pinellas County, there needs to be someone with a gun," he said. "If there’s not, and something bad happens, that’s not going to be a good situation."
Staff Writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.