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Pinellas to dramatically expand school district's police force

The sheriff wanted deputies on school campuses. So did the superintendent, the chairman of the Pinellas County Commission and probably a lot of concerned parents.

When it came to safety, this was the obvious choice.

It was also the most expensive.

And so, with time running out and the county commission declining to pay for new deputies, the Pinellas County school district will instead dramatically expand its own police force.

The plan calls for the department to grow from about 18 officers to nearly 100 by the end of the 2018-19 school year, according to superintendent Mike Grego.

The idea is that hiring retired, or rookie, cops to work a 36-week school year would still provide greater security but at a lesser cost than a full-time deputy.

"We are moving in that direction of a middle ground,'' Grego said. "We are talking about people who will be working with our youngest children, so we wanted them to have a trained law enforcement background, but we also had to be able to fully fund.''

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas commissioners won't pay for more deputies in schools

And there's the legislative contradiction.

The state was demanding public schools have armed personnel on campus, but it was offering very little money to pull it off. So administrators could either agree to a voluntary program that would arm school employees, or spend a lot of money that might otherwise go toward academics.

Instead, a lot of districts are coming up with their own alternative:

School employees that are focused solely on security, but do not have a law enforcement certification. Pasco, Polk and Manatee counties are moving in that direction.

Hillsborough was ahead of the game with a 120-member security force that has been run for years by a former Tampa assistant police chief. Hillsborough officials have been reviewing the new state mandates and seem likely to expand their program to meet new requirements.

Pinellas plans on doing it a little differently.

The district's security force is much smaller but is certified as law enforcement. In other words, its officers have the authority to make arrests, unlike Hillsborough.

Grego said Hillsborough's security officers typically make $18-$20 per hour. The Pinellas School Board's police make $20-$22 per hour. For the slight uptick in pay, Grego preferred certified law enforcement officers, not so much for the ability to make arrests but the extra training.

The program will also cost substantially less than full-fledged deputies when salaries, equipment and a shorter school calendar year are factored in. Pinellas has already earmarked funds to pay for all but about $2 million for the first year of the program.

Grego said police departments in St. Pete, Pinellas Park, Gulfport and Tarpon Springs will temporarily provide officers at schools until the district can hire the 80 replacements needed.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who must approve any school safety initiative according to state law, had not yet heard of Grego's new plan early on Wednesday but said he would support any program that put armed, and trained, personnel on campus.

The plan, in the end, may not please everyone, but it's the best solution available.

The district should not be depending on guidance counselors with ankle holsters, and it should not be robbing classrooms of funds. This is an imperfect answer to an impossible situation.