By Andrew Marra – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
After the Parkland school shooting in February, the state’s mandate was simple and swift: Put an armed officer in every public school by August.
But the new state requirement — passed three weeks after the February school massacre in the hopes of deterring future campus shootings — is proving difficult for schools to carry out in Palm Beach County and elsewhere around the state.
Palm Beach County’s public-school system, which pays its police officers less than most of the region’s other large law enforcement agencies, says it may take two years to hire all of the 75 extra officers needed to patrol every school by August.
And the cost of bringing in higher-paid officers from other departments in the meantime is expected to bust the school district’s security budget, putting other school programs at risk.
With the new school year just 2½ months away, the school district has reached a tentative deal for officers from 11 city police departments to patrol half of the county’s elementary schools. The officers would be paid overtime rates, with the school district covering the hefty tab.
But district officials have yet to finish a plan to guard another 45 elementary schools by the first day of school, Aug. 13, in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Talks with the sheriff’s office have been ongoing for weeks, but people familiar with the talks say they have become strained as the two sides struggled to come to terms, raising questions about who will patrol the elementary schools if no agreement is reached.
“They’re willing to step in and help us out,” Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer, said of the sheriff’s office. “They just need some time. If they’re going to help out, they’re going to need to hire some more deputies.”
Bringing deputies and city police officers into the county’s schools comes with a big price tag, one that officials expect to surpass the extra $5.5 million that the state provided.
Using city officers to guard 47 county elementary schools will cost roughly $100,000 a week, according to initial district estimates, and using sheriff’s deputies to guard the other half would cost at least as much.
That could end up costing the school district more than $7 million a year, although the price tag could fall as lower-paid district officers replace overtime-earning city officers.
“The funding (from the state) falls short of putting a sworn officer in every school,” Burke said. “I expect to be putting a bigger investment into security beyond the state dollars.”
If necessary, the district also could deploy its police supervisors to patrol elementary schools until more full-time officers are hired.
The pressures of growing the number of officers by so much so quickly have rocked the district’s police department, raising new questions about its future at a time when concerns about school safety have spiked across Florida.
Not only is newly installed Superintendent Donald Fennoy racing to find new officers, he is looking to replace his current police chief, Lawrence Leon, while also fending off proposals from community members who want the sheriff’s office to take over the district’s police force entirely.
Fennoy has called school security the top priority of his first year on the job, and navigating a way to installing an armed officer in every school is shaping up as his first significant leadership test since he took office in March.
The new state law does not require a licensed law-enforcement officer in every public school. It only mandates that every school must have a “school-safety officer.”
Under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, that officer could be a sworn law-enforcement officer, a civilian employee trained specifically to handle safety, or a teacher or administrator who agrees to carry a weapon and to respond in the case of an “active assailant incident.”
But like many counties around the state, the Palm Beach County School Board has rejected arming teachers or school administrators.
And while some other counties plan to staff schools with civilian police aides instead of officers, district officials say most parents want a trained law enforcement officer at every school.
The rush to hire more officers is putting the school district’s policing model to the test. The district finds itself competing to find applicants not only against other school districts but also against municipal police agencies that pay higher starting salaries.
A new officer in the school district’s police department typically earns a base salary of $43,300 a year, school district payroll records show.
That’s $6,600 less than the starting salary for West Palm Beach police officers ($50,000), $10,000 less than the starting salary for sheriff’s deputies ($53,200), and $23,000 less than the starting salary for Boca Raton police officers ($66,200).
Many cops ‘don’t want to work with kids’
School district officials point out that the job of a school police officer has advantages that other police agencies can’t offer. Like teachers, school police officers have long summer breaks along with shorter winter and spring breaks.
They work regular daytime hours and their jobs generally are considered less dangerous than those of road patrol officers who spend their days responding to calls in high-crime neighborhoods.
But school police jobs carry distinct challenges, too. And filling those jobs can be challenging.
“Most police officers don’t have the patience for it,” said district police officer Kevin O’Sullivan, a leader of the school district police officers’ union. “They don’t want to work with kids.”
Like many of the district’s officers, O’Sullivan came to the schools after a career as a city cop — in his case as an officer in New York City.
Now Jupiter High School’s school officer, he enjoys working with teenagers every day but said that it requires a special skill set that not all officers have.
School police officers have always earned less than the county’s sheriff’s deputies, but officials say pay at the sheriff’s office has been outpacing school district salaries, thanks to faster-growing tax revenues for the county government.
The growing wage gap that resulted has stoked dissatisfaction among the district’s officers, leaving many to leave or consider leaving for higher-paying opportunities, union leaders say.
“They knew that the salary was low but they accepted it because of the schedule,” said John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association. “Now there’s a lot of people going to the sheriff’s office and other agencies because the pay is so low. It’s going to become a training ground (for other agencies).”
Fennoy acknowledges that the pay disparity makes hiring officers more difficult, and he said raising officers’ pay has become a priority. But salary increases have been made more difficult by the new state requirement to hire dozens more officers.
“We have a lot to discuss,” Fennoy said. “It’s really only been two months since the mandate came down.”
Should sheriff patrol public schools?
The mad dash to bring in officers from other departments has raised a broader question in some quarters: Should the school district merge its 150-officer department with the much larger sheriff’s office?
Many officers have long pushed for a merger, which would allow them to earn higher pay. Also calling for a merger: State Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington.
The question of who best to guard a school is heightened even further by the debate that came after the Parkland shooting, when a video showed that a Broward deputy stayed outside as the massacre unfolded.
Fennoy, though, dismissed the prospect of a merger in an interview Friday, saying that letting the sheriff’s office patrol schools would be more costly and would give the school district less control over how officers are trained and hired and instructed to interact with students.
Not only that, Fennoy said, the school district police department provides services that an outside agency likely would not, including background checks for new teachers and other district employees, monitoring school bus security cameras and maintaining radio systems.
“Not only would I increase the cost there (for police services),” Fennoy said, “but then I still I still have to find other money to maintain all the ancillary pieces that my police department does for me. That doesn’t make any fiscal sense.”
The challenge of finding armed guards for every public school statewide has created problems across the state.
In Sarasota County, for instance, the sheriff’s office had long shared the cost of patrolling the county’s public schools but withdrew its deputies this year, reasoning that the school district should pay for the service entirely now that it was receiving state money for the purpose.
The fallout has left the Sarasota County School Board scrambling to create its own police force.
Palm Beach County’s schools have the advantage of already having a police department in place, making the hiring rush easier to manage.
But the costs of putting an officer in every school exceed the new money provided to cover it, and the short time frame for doing so means logistical questions may persist until the start of school.
“I think the intent is noble,” Burke said. “It’s just the funding and some of the logistics were not well thought out.”
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