CLEARWATER — After weeks of crunching numbers and contemplating worst case scenarios, the Clearwater Police Department will only have to hire three officers to comply with the new state mandate to put armed guards in every school.
When the Legislature passed the requirement after the Feb. 14 shooting attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead, the Pinellas County School Board looked to city police departments and the Sheriff's Office to help pay for stationing a sworn law enforcement officer in every school.
But county and city governments balked at helping the school district pay for that plan. So last week Superintendent Michael Grego recently said he would instead hire armed security guards for the start of the next school year. That will give the district's in-house police department time to hire more sworn officers.
Before the school district's change of heart, Clearwater faced having to hire up to 14 additional officers at a cost of $1.25 million.
Now with the school district placing security guards in the city's elementary schools and Oak Grove Middle School, the police department will only have to hire three new officers to staff Clearwater and Countryside High Schools and Clearwater Fundamental Middle School.
Clearwater police already provide a school resource officer at each of those schools. But the new state law's ratio of one officer for every 1,500 students required hiring a second officer for each campus.
Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said the city's plan makes sense because the three schools will be consistently staffed by two officers, instead of having an officer working with a security guard.
The initiative will cost $193,206. The school district will cover $174,000 of that and the city will pay $19,206. The startup costs for equipment will be about $31,000, which Slaughter said will be paid for through the police department's current budget.
The chief was an advocate for putting sworn law enforcement officers instead of armed guards in schools. He saw it as an opportunity to earn the trust of students.
"This is the next best thing," Slaughter said. "I do believe the plan in place, even though it's not with (police officers), makes our schools safer."
The City Council approved the plan 4-0 on Thursday night with Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell absent.
Clearwater's vote came after the Pinellas County Commission and Largo City Commission declined to step up financially, leaving the school board on the hook for paying to secure 32 elementary and five high schools on its own. This week St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman also backed away from a plan to put city officers in schools.
The school district will use the "stop gap measure" of armed guards until it can hire more in-house police officers for the 2018-19 school year.
Mayor George Cretekos noted the Legislature's mandate from the beginning was underfunded and placed a burden upon cities and school districts.
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But the reality, he said, is the city had to step up and do its share: "This isn't our responsibility but we do have a responsibility to our citizens and to our children."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.