By Robert Helde
Among the Hernando County School Board (School Board) workshop agenda items for Oct. 8th
was the discussion of Safe School options. The options presented at Tuesday’s Board workshop included continuing the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) school resource officer (SRO) contract, forming a school district run police force, employing guardians and employing a security firm. The end goal of any option selected is to ensure the safety of the students and the security of the campus.
Associate Superintendent of Business Services and Operations Heather Martin presented these options during the 2 p.m. workshop. Martin began by addressing the current relationship between the HCSO and the School Board, stating “In no way is the work of our current SRO’s the reason why we’re having this conversation today. We love our SRO’s, they’re amazing, and our staff loves working with them. So it’s really important to know that’s not why we’re talking about this.”
Martin continued her presentation to the Board, emphasizing, “...It’s always going to be my recommendation to this board that we have a sworn law enforcement officer on every campus.”
Additional to her recommendation to have a School Resource Officer (SRO) on all campuses Martin also suggested that staff should be hired as guardians for the purpose of perimeter control checks and associated support functions.
According to the presented information, the decision to form and maintain a police force provides several additional benefits to maintaining the current agreement with HCSO. The school district police force would be sworn officers who are able to make arrests, handle Baker Acts, and will have further specialization and training specific to school environments than their HCSO counterparts. The SRO’s day-to-day involvement on campus ostensibly will not change.
Other benefits of maintaining their own police force would be increased flexibility, year-round coverage, grass roots opportunities for joining the police force, potential access to additional grants, hurricane shelter coverage, and the ability to employ six (6) additional positions for the same cost. The annual cost of a School Board run police force will be $2,375,082 for thirty-three (33) positions, as opposed to $2,375,956 for twenty-seven (27) positions, ten(10) months of the year through the HCSO.
Board member Jimmy Lodato expressed concern, based on prior experience in Pinellas County, that the one time start-up cost and costs of maintenance and upgrades would be prohibitive.
Lotado stated, ”What bothers me here, is that we’re looking at $1,478,000 just to start this up.”
Lodato spoke briefly on the recurring costs of maintaining the School Board’s own police force, including the cost of maintaining a fleet of vehicles.
Lodato concluded his comments by saying, “If we have this kind of money sitting on the side, why aren’t we using it for updating computers or other programs or, at the same time, putting in ... guardians into our, say our elementary schools and moving some of the SRO’s into our schools that have... problems...”
The problems he was referring to in that case occurred at the three schools on Ken Austin Parkway.
Board Chair, Susan Duval responded in support of having a police force maintained by the school board by saying, “It never was a possibility before, to do something like this, so I never had it in the back of my mind that we would actually be able to sit here and have a conversation about something like this. Having SRO’s on our campus who are totally focused on school safety… they would be just laser light in on our students’ safety…”
The primary discongruence lies with the allocation of funding. From Board Chair Duval’s point of view, the advantages, as discussed, of having a school board maintained police force outweigh the financial cost. This opinion was shared by board member Kay Hatch. Countering that is the opinion held by Lotado that the sheriff’s office SRO’s provide the necessary security and already have their own infrastructure, therefore the money that would go to the start-up cost would be better spent providing educational benefit.
Nearing the end of the discussion Duval summed up and clarified, “Right now we don’t have consensus. We have, Kay and I agree on option two, Gus (Guadagnino) and Linda (Prescott) are, are kind of on the fence, and Jimmy wants to stay with the Sheriff’s Department.”
The two (2) board members still on the fence requested further information.
No decision was reached, and the consensus was for staff to provide additional information and for the item to be on the agenda for the workshop and meeting on Oct 22. The options did not go to vote during the Oct. 8 School Board workshop or the subsequent board meeting later in the afternoon. Instead, the vote is scheduled to take place during the Oct. 22 school board meeting.
After the workshop, board member Lodato expressed, “It’s a recipe for disaster.” He listed the numerous costs related to a separate police force such as transport, forensics and crime investigation. He remarked that there will need to be a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the sheriff’s office and that will cost money. Lodato also questioned how they were able to find the startup funds from the general fund, stating, “I need that money for our teachers.”
Capital improvement funds would also be used to start up the police force.
Lodato said that he would like to hear from Sheriff Nienhuis and Colonel Maurer first hand at the Oct. 22 workshop. He urged community members to attend and voice their opinions. “Everyone will have an opportunity to speak. I need them there at this meeting.”
“I believe in the Sheriff, he’s kept us safe in this community,” he said.
Julie B. Maglio contributed to this report.