CLEARWATER — When the Legislature passed a mandate earlier this year requiring all schools to have an armed guard on campus, the worst-case scenario looked bleak for Clearwater.
The city faced having to spend $1.25 million on hiring 14 new officers.
But a twist of circumstances, and some budget creativity, will result in the city spending $6,000 less in the 2018-19 school year on school resource officer salaries than it did before it was required to hire more to comply with the new law.
When the mandate was enacted, a reaction to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland that left 17 dead, the Pinellas County School Board looked to city police departments and the Sheriff’s Office to pay for stationing a sworn law enforcement officer in every school.
After several local governments balked at the expense, Superintendent Michael Grego agreed in May to instead hire some armed security guards for the start of the next school year. That would give the district’s in-house police department time to hire more sworn officers.
With the school district now placing security guards in the city’s elementary schools, the police department had to hire only three officers to staff Clearwater High, Countryside High and Clearwater Fundamental Middle schools.
Clearwater police already provide school resource officers at the two high schools. But a policy requiring a ratio of one officer for every 1,500 students prompted hiring a second officer for each campus.
Salaries and benefits of the three existing school resource officers at Oak Grove Middle, Clearwater High and Countryside High schools, plus the three new officers for Clearwater Fundamental and the two high schools will cost $468,356, according to Chief Daniel Slaughter. The school system will reimburse the city $348,000 and the city will pay the remaining $120,356 through the city’s special law enforcement trust, which is funded through money from forfeited drugs and property.
The share the city will pay through the forfeiture fund for six officers is $6,000 less than what it paid last year for three officers, Slaughter said.
The difference is because two senior SROs moved to other assignments and their replacements are younger officers on a lower pay scale. While the three existing SRO positions are full-time, Slaughter will hire the three new officers on a partial-year basis with summers off and no pension payment, which also creates salary savings.
The city still will still have to pay $31,000 in startup costs for equipment for the three new officers, which is being paid through the police department’s budget. But Slaughter said that expense was also minimized by using some surplus vehicles.
Slaughter said it was challenging to design a plan for SROs under the state mandate while the school board’s reaction shifted mid-process. But the department was able to use the change of circumstances and the new partial-year positions to come out ahead.
"I feel more comfortable when I have an emergency on my desk than when I have nothing else to do but routine business, so I thrived on having a problem and coming up with an innovative way to fix it," Slaughter said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.