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Tampa Bay needs millions to pay for school security law

Law enforcement, school districts and county governments across the Tampa Bay region are confronting the sticker shock of the state mandate that every school must have its own armed officer by July 1.

In the wake of the 17 lives lost in the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting, Florida lawmakers passed a law requiring every public school to have a security officer or armed marshal.
But where, officials ask, will they get the millions the Legislature now requires them to spend on top of their already strained budgets?

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sounded the alarm as the Pinellas County School Board and the County Commission met on Tuesday. He estimated that the county is $23.6 million short of the money needed to put a sworn, fully trained and equipped school resource officer in every school.

That is the more expensive option, but the sheriff and school district both rejected the Legislature's other option: arming school employees.

"I don't know where this is going, but we have to prepare," Gualtieri told the County Commission. "Someone is going to have to fund them. Doing nothing is not an option."

The Hillsborough County School Board, already beset by financial woes, has a $12 million deficit in security costs. Complying with the new state law could increase that deficit to $16 million.

The district hasn't broken down what its increased costs will be as Pinellas did. But Hills­borough Sheriff Chad Chronsiter and superintendent Jeff Eakins have also rejected arming school employees.

Hillsborough board members wondered whether they should raise taxes — or break the law? April Griffin pointed out that some districts have chosen to pay fines for violating the constitutional amendment on class size because they couldn't afford to adhere to it.

"I know this is an awkward, weird conversation to have," she said. "But I think that we need to explore all possibilities in that regard."

Sheriff: Putting an officer in every school will cost Pinellas $23.6 million

HILLSBOROUGH SCHOOL BOARD: Hillsborough school district's hole just got $16 million deeper

Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning and Sheriff Chris Nocco started meeting two weeks ago to discuss how they would provide law enforcement officers to school campuses that currently have none. Pasco's middle and high schools already have assigned officers, so that means equipping the elementary schools.

"I don't know where the sheriff will find an additional 45 SROs," Browning said. His district's estimated shortfall right now: $1.5 million.

School districts are expected to submit plans to the state, in consultation with their sheriffs. But there are no lack of complications, and school districts have many questions they want the state to answer.

For example Hillsborough is unlike other districts in that it uses its own armed security officers to help the sworn officers at middle and high schools and at some elementary schools.

Those security officers typically earning $25,000 to $40,000 a year and are specially trained to work in schools. They could be an economic alternative to sworn officers, whose costs are much higher.

But even if the state approved that kind of arrangement, the district cannot say how quickly it could recruit, hire and train enough security officers to comply with the law.

Meanwhile leaders in Pasco and Pinellas were concerned that hiring scores more sworn officers will incur unforeseen costs.

Browning was concerned about how Pasco's agencies will find enough money to cover costs such as the $6 million more for salaries, benefits, equipment and training for the new officers.

Gualtieri broke down his calculation that Pinellas would need a total of $31.3 million to help pay for 156 new fully trained and equipped school resource officers:

There are about 50 school resource officers already assigned to Pinellas middle and high schools, but none assigned to elementary schools.

So the 156 new SROs would be for 81 elementary schools, 18 charter schools and 31 substitutes to fill in for sick leave, training and vacation time. The sheriff also estimated the need for 10 additional officers to properly staff the biggest high schools and 14 supervisors to watch over the expanded force.

The state's total contribution to the Pinellas County School District for security was increased to $6.1 million. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and municipal police departments already contribute $1.6 million. So that's $7.7 million available.

That leaves Pinellas with a deficit of $12.4 million — and no choice but to somehow come up with the money.

But wait, there's more: Gualtieri said hiring more staffers would also incur an additional one-time start-up cost of $11.2 million for new vehicles, guns, uniforms, computers and other equipment.

Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard blamed the Legislature for not giving school districts enough funds to comply with the new law.

"The School Board doesn't have the money. The cities don't have the money," she said. "What makes us special that we can come up with (millions more)."

Gualtieri said his agency can't pay for this mandate alone: "I don't have taxing authority. I don't have revenue-generating authority. It's a countywide issue."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Mark Puente contributed to this report.