County commissioners concerned about potential obligation to assist with funding for new school security measures approved by Legislature

Sarasota County Schools’ superintendent and sheriff reach agreement on plan for deputies in all elementary schools for 2018-19 school year

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

Before Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight and leaders of the Sarasota County School District settled on a new staffing plan this week to improve security in the schools, the County Commission asked its attorney to research whether it might be on the hook for funding new school safety measures.

On March 14, during the last 5 minutes of the County Commission’s regular meeting, Commissioner Charles Hines raised the issue. “Do you think it’s worth asking [County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh] to take a look at the legislation that was passed” and give the board his opinion on what its duties and responsibilities might be? Hines asked his colleagues.

Hines was referring to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on March 9. The bill included a state appropriation of $400 million to school districts.

“I know the sheriff has been very active in recognizing that he has a role in this,” Hines said, but “it will affect all of us.”

The key component of that bill is the state funding, Chair Nancy Detert responded, and the Sarasota County School Board will get its share. (Detert is a former School Board member.)

“I would look to the School Board to be paying to make the [security] changes. A lot of those are going to be physical changes,” she added, such as installing bulletproof glass in buildings.

Still, if her colleagues wanted the Office of the County Attorney to provide the commission his opinion, Detert indicated she had no disagreement with that.

“I’m not sure that I’m clear,” Hines replied, regarding what the legislators believe county commissions’ role should be in the new school safety program

“It is up to the School Board,” Detert stressed. “That [$400-million appropriation] was incorporated into the budget dealing with the schools,” she added. “There is not extra money for us to help implement [anything], and our budget is currently short.”

Detert was referring to cuts the commissioners already have made in an effort to balance the county budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. Future budget projections, provided by staff in late January, have indicated potentially larger gaps that they will have to plug.

Gov. Rick Scott. Image courtesy of

The bill Gov. Scott signed on March 9 included $97.5 million specifically designated for school safety programs, as the Sheriff’s Office pointed out in a March 22 news release. That funding, the news release noted, is in addition to the “nearly $1 million” the School Board receives from the Florida Department of Education as part of its statewide safe school program.

Along with the funding the Legislature provided through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Public Safety Act, the release added, the school district is expected to receive $56 million in property tax revenue next year as a result of renewal of the special 1-mill tax. (See the related story in this issue.) Therefore, the release said, for the 2018-19 school year, the Sheriff’s Office had requested that the school district pay “100% of the costs associated with school security.”

At the conclusion of the School Board’s March 22 workshop, members concurred with a plan Superintendent Todd Bowden had agreed to with Sheriff Knight. That will pay for a School Resource Deputy 2 (SRD2) position in all the district’s elementary schools for the 2018-19 school year at a cost of $63,491.99 per deputy, with a total of 23 to 25 of those positions, including regular personnel and alternates. Because of the Sheriff’s Office decision to cease funding for personnel it places in the schools, Bowden estimated the total extra expense to the district would be approximately $750,000 in the next school year.

The existing agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and the district is for 14 School Resource Deputy 1 (SRD1) positions, with three at the high schools, five at the middle schools, two at alternative schools and one at an elementary school in the unincorporated area of the county.

County Commission debate

After Hines and Detert exchanged comments during their March 13 meeting, Commissioner Michael Moran said, “Commissioner Hines, I think your request is incredibly reasonable, and I would support it very much. … We need to be clear on what our responsibilities might be. … Obviously, we have a wonderful partnership with our School Board.”

Moran added that all the commissioners had received copies of letters the sheriff had sent the School Board on the security issue. “I thought they were very [well] thought through,” Moran pointed out.

Perhaps Rob Lewis, the county’s director of community intergovernmental relations, could provide the commission, at its next regular meeting, an overview of all the actions of the Legislature this year, Detert said, including the passage of the public safety bill.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis replied that Lewis was scheduled to do that during the board’s March 23 budget workshop. However, only the Office of the County Attorney could provide a legal opinion on how the High School Public Safety Act would affect county commissions, Lewis pointed out.

Then Hines put his earlier request for such a legal opinion into a motion, and Moran seconded it. The motion passed unanimously.

School Board debate

School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Eight days later, on March 22, as the School Board members discussed their proposed budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, they addressed the most recent letter Knight had sent them, which was dated March 21.

As they debated whether they should go ahead and consider specific cuts in the proposed budget, Chair Bridget Ziegler said, “I don’t particularly think it’s appropriate” to ask the County Commission for money to help pay for new security staff without first having considered cuts at the district level. “That doesn’t seem a very good partnership.”

The School Board members should work on cuts in their budget first, board member Eric Robinson responded. Otherwise, if they go to the county commissioners, seeking funding assistance, “I’ve got a feeling that [the commissioners are] going to react negatively.”

“We just passed the referendum,” board member Caroline Zucker pointed out, referring to the March 20 vote on renewing the district’s special 1-mill tax for another four years. “I do not want to start making cuts.”

“I think our job, that we’re elected to do,” Ziegler said, “is to prepare budgets.” The need for the 2018-19 school district budget to cover higher costs for security “is not a surprise,” she added. Waiting to make cuts would make things worse, she told her colleagues.

“I think it was a surprise yesterday at 1:30 p.m.,” board member Shirley Brown replied, when the district received Knight’s latest letter.

That letter asked that Superintendent Bowden let Knight know “no later than close of business on Monday, March 26” whether Bowden and the School Board wanted to accept one of sheriff’s proposals for increased security staffing in the schools.

Brown added that she did not believe she and her colleagues should start cutting the proposed 2018-19 budget yet, “because I think we are still in negotiations” with the sheriff. “Our other elected officials, I think, will partner with us,” she said.

Vice Chair Jane Goodwin agreed about not starting on cuts that day. “I understand the sheriff wants this done by next week,” she continued, “because he has issues with his budget.”

The March 22 Sheriff’s Office news release pointed out that Knight will have to submit his 2019 fiscal year budget to the County Commission no later than June 30.

“If we can resolve some of these issues by the end of business today,” Goodwin said, “that would be great.”

The sheriff’s proposals and a vote

Superintendent Todd Bowden. Photo courtesy of the Sarasota County Schools

In his March 21 letter, Knight thanked Superintendent Bowden and his staff for meeting with Knight on March 15 to discuss options for “elementary school security for the 2018-19 school year.”

They had discussed having the Sheriff’s Office provide off-duty deputies at the 21 elementary schools in the county beginning April 2 and continuing through the remainder of the current school year, Knight continued. Bowden also had sought more information on school security opportunities the sheriff had provided in a March 12 letter, Knight added.

Knight clarified in the March 21 letter that an School Resource Deputy 1 position “is equivalent to the current school resource officer we staff in our agreement.” Such officers serve as instructors for short-term programs, interact with students and provide security for the campus.

“An SRD2,” Knight continued, “is comparable to a security deputy who will work during school hours, while school is in session, and students are on campus. An SRD2 will meet the requirements of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act.”

The current agreement between the School Board and the Sheriff’s Office, Knight pointed out, provides for 14 SRD1 positions, divided among various schools. The estimated cost of that program for the 2018-19 school year is $1,537,738, Knight added.

The expense of providing SRD2s for the 12 elementary schools in the unincorporated part of the county for the 2018-19 school year would be about $1,108,049.04, Knight wrote.

Therefore, the total for the new SRD2 officers and the current SRD1 staffing would be $2,645,787.04 for the 2018-19 school year, he added. The projected annual recurring cost would be $918,977.86, Knight noted.

In comparison, if Bowden wanted SRD1s in those 12 elementary schools, Knight continued, the estimated first-year cost would be $2,069,360.30.

The SRD2 program, Knight wrote, “would save the school board approximately $961,311.26.”

“Recruiting, training, and hiring personnel is a time consuming and extensive process,” Knight pointed out. Therefore, if Bowden wanted to pursue either of the alternatives Knight had provided, Knight requested “a timely decision” by March 26.

School Board member Eric Robinson. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

During their regular meeting on March 22, the School Board members voted 4-1 to release their preliminary budget for 2018-19 to all district departments, including the individual schools. Board member Eric Robinson cast the lone “No” vote, saying he felt Bowden should have considered administrative cuts before asking principals to work with their staffs on recommendations for reducing expenses to cover the additional cost the district will have to bear for school resource officers.

Bowden stressed that all departments, including those related to district administration, will be asked to propose cost-cutting measures.

The district will not finalize its budget until late this summer, he had noted during the workshop earlier in the day.

Chair Ziegler agreed with board member Caroline Zucker about the need to release the preliminary budget to the schools, so principals can begin filling positions for the next school year. Still, Ziegler said, she is “very concerned as we move ahead” about making cuts in an effort to pay for the necessary new security personnel and associated changes.

Board member Brown again mentioned the possibility of forging agreements “with other local governments” to help cover those additional costs.