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A Hernando schools police force? Decision-makers are divided

The Hernando County School Board will vote on the idea on Oct. 22.
A Hernando County Sheriff's school resource deputy talks to students at Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. The School Board is contemplating moving away from the Sheriff's Office in favor of establishing its own police department.
Published Oct. 9

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County School Board members are divided on the merits and feasibility of a district police department, an idea floated last week by district officials. One board member argued it “has no legs,” while the board’s chairwoman deemed it “worth its weight in gold.”

If approved, the School Board would no longer pay the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office for use of its deputies as school resource officers. Instead, it would hire its own. The board directed staff earlier this year to look for other options, frustrated with the 5 percent annual cost increase built into its contract with the Sheriff’s Office.

The board made no decision at a workshop Tuesday and plans to take a vote on Oct. 22. But Tuesday’s discussion revealed where board members stand on the idea as they wade deeper into its details.

Susan Duval, who made the weight-in-gold comment, said she was excited by the flexibility a district-employed police force could offer. She agreed with district officials that these officers could be hyper-focused on school safety, and that the district would have more of a say over their training, including education on student development and mental health.

“Having SROs on our campuses who are totally focused on school safety, and the training piece of it, is incredibly important,” she said.

District staff members highlighted their plan’s ability to hire 32 officers — including a chief, a lieutenant, three sergeants — plus a secretary, all for the same amount it pays for 27 Sheriff’s deputies. That has a lot to do with salaries and benefits. Combined wages and benefits for resource deputies from the Sheriff’s Office range from about $80,000 to about $124,000 annually, according to public records.

Year-round, non-command resource officers would make just under $64,000 a year in combined wages and benefits, according to the district’s plan, while officers working 11 months of the year would make just under $60,000. The district plan has an additional $54,000 set aside as incentives for current school resource officers to join the force.

Board member Jimmy Lodato, who characterized a district police force as legless, had a litany of concerns. He balked at the projected one-time startup costs for a department. That includes about $830,000 for equipment, such as weapons, uniforms and evidence safes, plus command staff vehicles. It also includes $647,000 to buy vehicles for each resource officer, although the district likely could lease vehicles for less. Lodato also worried that the staff ignored probable recurring expenses. And he raised questions about how a district police force would handle forensics, dispatch and crossing guards, which are not built into the district’s plan.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Deputy schools superintendent Heather Martin had some answers.

Other school districts with their own police forces have signed memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement to get some of those services at no cost, she said. If there were costs to those agreements, they’d have to be approved by the board before moving forward with the department, Martin said. School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso added that providing crossing guards is, by law, the responsibility of the county, not the School Board.

Board members Gus Guadagnino and Linda Prescott said they wanted more information before making a decision. Board member Kay Hatch echoed Duval in praising the idea.

School officials have emphasized that the proposal doesn’t mean they’re displeased with the work of the Sheriff’s school resource deputies. Sheriff Al Nienhuis has said he’ll let the board make its decision and will continue to support the school district, whatever its members choose.

Brandon Cox, the local Fraternal Order of Police president, said last week that he’d heard from some resource deputies who were worried about their positions. But if the district moves away from the Sheriff’s Office, Cox feels confident that those deputies will have other jobs within the Sheriff’s Office. His main concern, he said, is that students stay safe.

“It’s really too soon to tell” what the best choice is, he said. “There’s pros and cons on both sides of the fence.”

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