Hillsborough County School Board members will discuss security today at a time of some confusion surrounding who can carry a gun and guard a school.
On Monday, Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins said that unless the district opts to try out the marshal or "guardian" program – which he, Sheriff Chad Chronister and the School Board are not inclined to do – the other viable option is for each school to have a resource officer. That already happens at all middle and high schools, and some elementary schools under a temporary grant, through partnerships with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department.
When asked if a lower-paid school security officer could meet that need, Eakins said no. While the law does allow a "school safety officer," Eakins said, "the statute points back to the requirements that make you a law enforcement officer," so it is more or less the same thing.
The cost of all this? $16.9 million, according to an estimate coming to the School Board Thursday in its 1 p.m. workshop. They got that number by multiplying 254 schools times $66,500, which is only half the yearly salary and benefits package of the average sworn officer. The policing agencies pay the other half.
That's not the message from Tallahassee, however.
Gov. Rick Scott's office, in response to widespread concerns about the cost of all of this security, said school districts have plenty of money in case the hundreds of millions that the Legislature freed up is not enough. Hillsborough has $102 million in its reserves, Scott's people said.
That kind of thinking does not go over well with Hillsborough officials, who are trying to get their general fund reserve up to $200 million to cover two months of payroll in a natural disaster, and satisfy the bond rating agencies that determine their credit. "Spending reserve funds on recurring expenses is not a recipe for success," district spokesman Grayson Kamm said Wednesday. "We need to build that fund up so we have that money when we need it."
And there are other differences between the district's perspective and the state's.
Sen. Bill Galvano, in an email, contradicted Hillsborough's position that it must either appoint marshals or hire law enforcement. "Recognizing the different needs of schools throughout the state, the bill provides a number of ways to meet this requirement," Galvano wrote. "There is no requirement that local law enforcement entities reassign existing officers to cover these duties. Additionally, school safety officers and school guardians are not required to be employees of local law enforcement entities."
Is he correct?
Technically yes, Kamm said. If you read his words carefully, Galvano is saying the safety officer does not have to be someone sent over by a law enforcement agency. It could be, for example, John Newman, who left the Tampa Police Department as an assistant chief in 2014 to take over the school district's security force. Newman would have all the qualities and qualifications of a police officer. But, technically, he isn't one.
Nevertheless, since most people who are qualified to be law enforcement officers are law enforcement officers, the district made that assumption in its budgeting. "You really have to look at that outside number," Kamm said.
A final thought: At this point, the district does not believe Newman's security force will qualify as school safety officers. But could they be brought in as guardians?
The School Board took a stand against the guardian plan, with members agreeing it was a bad idea.
But that was when the discussion was about arming football coaches, guidance counselors and a few days earlier in Tallahassee, classroom teachers.
Giving guardian status to people who already are armed, and focus on safety, could emerge as an option as the district hashes out its plan.
The board workshop, which is open to the public, begins at 1 p.m. The Times will report on it later in the day.