Calling it a kneejerk reaction and a feel-good measure that cost too much money, Hillsborough County school board members rejected a proposal Tuesday to put an armed security officer in every elementary school.
The move came less than a week after Superintendent MaryEllen Elia unveiled her plan to spend $2 million out of the district's contingency fund this year to tighten security. Her proposal would have cost the district $4 million next year.
"This is a large-ticket item," said school board member Susan Valdes. "I think this is overboard. I don't think that one guy with one gun that shoots one bullet will make a difference."
The superintendent's recommendation came in the aftermath of the mass shooting that occurred last month at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 students and six adults dead.
Tampa police and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have added patrols at elementary schools across the county since the Connecticut tragedy. Elia's plan would have allowed the district to hire 130 security officers to be placed at elementary schools permanently, like middle and high schools already have.
Some board members criticized Elia for putting them in an awkward position by announcing her plan without their input. If they voted against the measure, they said, it would appear they were against safer schools.
"This is an awful position to put the board in," said board member Cindy Stuart. "Either way we vote, we are going to be beat up on."
Board member Stacy White said he needed more answers about many aspects of what he said could become the third-largest law enforcement organization in the county.
"We can't do this in a rushed manner and do it right," White said.
April Griffin, chairwoman of the school board, wondered why there has not been a similar rush – and financial investment – to fix ills in the exceptional student education department.
"I don't wish to make any decision based out of fear," Griffin said. "We need to discuss this in a very comprehensive way."
While some board members took exception with using district emergency funds to hire the guards, Doretha Edgecomb cautioned that wasn't a prudent approach.
"We can never put a price tag on the lives of our students and our employees," she said.
Edgecomb said an armed elementary presence might just be a fact of life in this era.
"This is the world in which we live," she said. "No one can say, 'It won't happen in my community, it won't happen in my school.' "
A handful of speakers addressed the issue before the board began its discussion.
"We shouldn't be afraid," said Kelly Scott, the mother of a kindergarten student and an opponent of the plan. "Why would we want our kids growing up next to guns in schools?"
Two elementary principals spoke in favor of Elia's idea, including Julie Scardino, the principal of Sulphur Springs Elementary, which has had a school resource officer for years.
"He's not seen as an armed guard, he's a member of our staff," Scardino said. "Our students go to him if they have a problem."
In the end, the only item the board approved in Elia's ambitious plan was to spend $8,500 to hire a school safety expert to review district security protocols.
The other items could come back to the board after more research and input. Board members want to have a workshop on the security issue.
Elia stressed to board members that she brought up the idea last week to initiate conversation.
"I think it's important to have all of your questions answered," she told the board. "I think it's exactly what we needed to have happen."
The superintendent said after the meeting she was not surprised with the board vote.
Before the vote, she told board members the security crackdown was necessary just like after the events of Sept. 11.
"I really wish it wasn't necessary," Elia said. "There are no easy answers. It doesn't come with guarantees."