County commissioners blast School Board over lack of clarity with the Sheriff’s Office regarding security personnel for the next school year

Commission agrees to have county administrator accompany Sheriff Tom Knight if School Board will agree to a public discussion of staffing and funding issues

Sheriff Tom Knight. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight and members of the County Commission voiced vexation this week that they have no clear idea about the amount of funding the county will need to provide the Sheriff’s Office for the 2019 fiscal year.

The reason? Conflicting statements from the Sarasota County School District regarding security personnel for the next school year, which will begin Aug. 13. Under the aegis of a law the Legislature approved earlier this year, a security officer must be present on each campus while school is in session, Knight pointed out during the County Commission’s June 20 budget workshop.

Yet, Knight told the commissioners, the majority of the School Board has not been willing to sit down with him and representatives of the North Port, Venice and Sarasota police departments during a public meeting to talk about the relevant issues.

“I don’t understand why an elected board who answers to their community, why the majority of that board will not sit down and talk to their sheriff about the safety of the children,” Knight said.

As a result of the approximately 90-minute discussion of the Sheriff’s Office’s proposed 2019 fiscal year budget, the commissioners agreed to Knight’s request to have County Administrator Jonathan Lewis — as their representative — accompany Knight to a meeting with the School Board, if the latter is agreeable to discussing school security issues and funding with the two men.

Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out that the county’s new fiscal year will begin Oct. 1 — almost three months from now. Yet, the new school year will start Aug. 13. He wanted to send a clear message from the County Commission, he continued, “that other [elected officials] — they may do whatever they chose — need to sit down with our sheriff, their sheriff and our county administrator” to iron out the school security issues.

Knight responded that he has been trying to arrange such a meeting since March.

Chair Nancy Detert and Commissioner Paul Caragiulo did acknowledge, at various points of the June 20 discussion, that it was inappropriate for the county commissioners to disparage other elected officials.

Nonetheless, such comments continued.

As parents, Commissioners Charles Hines and Caragiulo both expressed alarm about the School Board’s lack of clarity with Knight. “I’m aghast that we’re discussing this,” Caragiulo said, noting that he has two children who attend district schools. “I can’t believe it’s gotten to this point.”

“The relationship with the superintendent is gone,” Knight responded, referring to his interaction with Todd Bowden, whom the School Board named superintendent in October 2016. Knight told the commissioners that negotiating with Bowden “was like playing the old game of Telephone.” No matter what they agreed on, Knight said, Bowden provided a different message to community residents.

(From left) Vice Chair Charles Hines, Chair Nancy Detert and Commissioner Michael Moran sit in session on April 24. File photo

Hines noted that he has a child attending a district high school. One district assertion that Hines said he has found especially troubling is that the district is recruiting recent law enforcement academy graduates to serve in th internal police force Bowden and the School Board have agreed to establish. “They’re three or four years older than the boys and girls that are on [a high school campus],” Hines pointed out of those recent graduates. Yet, those officers will have to be ready to stop an active shooter, he added. “We’ve got a lot of problems there.”

The bigger issue than their age, Knight responded, is the recent graduates’ lack of law enforcement training.

“This is setting up to be a disaster,” Hines added. “I just had to put that out there publicly.”

Financial considerations

A chart shows preliminary budget figures for the Sheriff’s Office for the 2019 fiscal year. The column referencing insurance regards another unresolved issue. The Sheriff’s Office has looked into setting up its own insurance and benefits plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Knight pointed out that the school district received $2.4 million from the state as a result of the Legislature’s passage of the new school security law following the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Chair Detert added that the district also won renewal in March of the special 1 mill tax that voters first approved in 2002. That is expected to bring in approximately $56.5 million this year, she said. The tax will be in effect for another four years.

“And they have a reduction in student population,” she pointed out of the school district.

“From a budget standpoint,” Knight told the commissioners, “the school district is Goliath; I’m David. I don’t have their money.”

Lisa Kiesel, the Sheriff’s Office’s chief financial officer, noted that the office’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year could have up to 1,000 positions, depending on what transpires with the school resource officer situation. The current workforce number is 973, based on a slide Kiesel showed the commissioners.

Knight noted that his preliminary budget total could be about 2.96% higher than the current one, with personnel expenses rising from $89,210,489 to $92,555,656 in FY19.

Has the School Board submitted any plan for security, including anticipated costs, to the county? Detert asked County Administrator Lewis.

“The short answer is ‘No,’” Lewis responded, adding that he had had some conversations with Superintendent Bowden.

Lewis pointed out that the normal practice has been for the district to work out an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office, which then would plan on expenses in the budget proposal it would present to the county.

A chart provides further details about the preliminary Sheriff’s Office budget for the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

“We’re discussing the School Board finances when we’re here for our own [budget] meeting,” Detert said. Yet, the commissioners were unsure of Knight’s budget because of the lack of clarity about whether the school district will need him to provide school resource officers (SROs) for the next school year, she added.

“I’ve been trying to nail that down now for two months,” Knight replied. His fear, he continued, is “that the phone’s going to ring two weeks before school starts, and I’ll have to pull deputies out of residential zones and put them on campuses.”

When Detert asked how many of the new 22 positions Knight is requesting for the 2019 fiscal year would be school resources officers, Kiesel explained that 14 of them would be what Knight has designated SRO 2 positions. They would work only on campuses during the 196-day school year; the Sheriff’s Office would provide no vehicles for them, either, Knight said.

The SROs in the middle and high schools work with students and administrative staff on the campuses, Knight explained; they have been trained as regular deputies.

Then, referencing the School Board’s plan to have a full police force in place before the start of the new school year, Detert said, “I have no confidence it’s going to be done by August.” Nonetheless, she asked Knight what would happen to the 14 positions if the district does get its own force established.

The Sheriff’s Office still will need school resource officers for the charter schools in the county, he replied, adding that the school district staff members have said those officers are not their responsibility.”

“That’s pretty amazing,” Detert responded.

“We have been working with the charters; they have been wonderful to work with,” Knight told her. Nonetheless, he said, “That [SRO figure for the charter schools] could change.”

Regardless of what happens with the school district, he continued, “You’re not going to fund a surplus; let’s put it that way.”

A chart shows staffing trends in the Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

He would work with Lewis, he added, keeping him apprised of developments.

Knight also pointed out that he understood that, during the June 19 School Board meeting, Bowden acknowledged that the district had had a 50-50 cost-sharing arrangement with the Sheriff’s Office for School Resource Officers in the middle and high schools, while the district paid 80% of the expense of Sarasota Police Department officers. “It was never my intention to have the ‘Keystone Cops’ created in the school district,” Knight continued, indicating frustration with the fact that Bowden never before would discuss the disparity in cost-sharing.

When Detert asked whether he would be agreeable to an 80-20 cost sharing plan for the existing school resource officers, Knight told her, “If we have operational control [of the plan] and set it up … I can’t see any reason to say, ‘No’ to that.”