Last Updated: Wednesday, 8:42 a.m.
The Flagler County School Board Tuesday evening approved a plan to immediately hire and post regular, non-SRO deputies at each elementary school, as overtime detail for off-duty deputies, and at $32 an hour per deputy, for the next 75 days of school, at a cost of $84,000. The school district’s share will be $63,000, with the sheriff’s office picking up 25 percent of the cost ($21,000). The sheriff said he could not enact the broader plan, involving actual school resource deputies, until next year, when his budget can enable it.
“The funding for this year will come from our fund balance,” School Superintendent Janet Valentine said, referring to the school district’s reserves, which stand at between $4 million and $5 million.
That plan passed, 4-1, with Trevor Tucker in dissent.
“I supported the vote because you can’t have it at the one school and not at the others,” board member Colleen Conklin said, explaining her reluctance at approving a plan that lacked the long-term specificity she was looking for. She was referring to Old Kings Elementary having a full-time guard, following a parent’s decision to pay for it of her own pocket. That arrangement can now be brought to an end, since the district will pick up the cost.
Board members and the superintendent have said they’ve been deluged by parents’ concern over security. But when the board asked for public comment this evening, only one parent spoke, to suggest that the board consider installing metal detectors in the schools. Staff aside, the chamber was mostly empty.
Tucker said he voted against the measure because it relies on money from the district’s reserves, and because it seemed to be more of a “knee-jerk reaction.” He considers Flagler schools safe–“If I didn’t, my child wouldn’t be there,” he said; his child attends Bunnell Elementary–and says there will always be a measure of risk anywhere that can’t always be accounted for. Tucker mentioned the case of the survivalist in Alabama who last week kidnapped a 5-year-old child from a school bus. “Are we going to put a deputy on every school bus?” he asked. “How far do we take this? That’s really the next question.” He’s not opposed to the mentorship aspect of cops in schools, but as the board takes on the larger discussion of permanent school-based deputies, Tucker said he was concerned about what programs would have to be cut to accommodate that arrangement.
Flagler County School Superintendent Janet Valentine also recommended to the school board that actual School Resource Deputies, or SRDs, be hired at each of the county’s five elementary schools next year, doubling the school deputies’ ranks at an additional cost of between $275,000 and $437,000 a year. Sheriff Jim Manfre presented the plan to the board this evening in Bunnell. The board deferred discussing that plan’s specifics to a future meeting.
Manfre has pledged to pick up at least half the additional cost of the permanent school deputies (starting next year), thus reducing the school board’s burden. The cheaper plan entails hiring deputies who’d work only through the school year (what Manfre and the school board are calling “seasonal” deputies), rather than the full 52 weeks a year, as current school deputies do. “Clearly it’s cost-effective to do the part-time deputies,” Manfre said this afternoon, shortly before tonight’s meeting, “and I believe we can train reserve law enforcement officers as well as we train full-time deputies and provide the cost savings to the school district and the county.”
District staff is also recommending security “upgrades” in the district that would add at least another $251,000 to the district’s security costs, and more than double its new security obligations, past half a million dollars-money it does not have budgeted.
Every dollar the school district must spend on additional security now or next year is money it doesn’t have budgeted. “We would just be dipping into our savings,” Valentine said. And the board will have to decide, come next year, what programs or services to cut to meet its new security obligations, assuming it adopts one of the plans being proposed.
“Do we want to look at making cuts at other places?” Valentine asked rhetorically. “But it’s obvious that this is very, very important to parents and this community, because I’ve received a lot of phone calls.” She added: “That’s what we’re going to start talking about tonight. Obviously right now this is not budgeted, so this would come directly out of our fund budget. For next year we need to take a look for how we’re going to cover the cost of those deputies.”
Board member John Fischer proposed floating a ballot measure that would ask voters to foot the bill for additional security through higher taxes. But that would have to be a special election.
Currently, the cost of six school deputies at four schools is $785,000 (see the contract here). That price tag includes the $77,000 salary of the deputies’ supervisor–Steve Cole–and almost $50,000 for crossing guards at the middle and elementary schools, which the sheriff’s office provides. It also includes operating costs ($82,000) and capital costs ($96,000). The school district pays $287,000 of the total bill. Palm Coast government picks up $103,000. The sheriff’s office picks up the rest.
The additional cost would bring the total bill for deputy security in schools to $1.2 million.
“I believe it is the best return on investment of all the money we spend in the agency,” Manfre said. He said the value of school deputies goes well beyond them being “cops” and preventing crime: they provide drug and alcohol education, gang awareness, mentorship, and above all help identify at-risk students and keep them from taking steps toward criminal behavior. Manfre is stressing that as the program evolves on his watch, it will do so with those goals as a priority. He is not comfortable with a perception that school resource deputies are just a police force inside the schools.
The $1.2 million cost assumes the sheriff and the district agree to hiring five additional full-time deputies year-round, which would cost an additional $437,406. Manfre’s less expensive plan-the deputies who’d work seven and a half hours a day, 196 days a year, as opposed to eight hours a day, year-round-would cost $275,000. But even the lesser plan would keep the total cost of security at close to $1 million a year, an enormous sum for a district with just 11 schools and 13,000 students even when shared between district, sheriff’s office and Palm Coast.
Either way, both the school district and the sheriff would have to contend with budgetary constraints. The sheriff’s budget is itself limited by what the Flagler County Commission approves. But Manfre said he’s had conversations with County Manager Craig Coffey and County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin about the county eventually providing the additional dollars to cover at least the part-time option. “They are willing to enter into a conversation about the county contributing that portion through the sheriff’s office,” Manfre said, “but obviously they have their own budget constraints. But they didn’t say they wouldn’t be supportive. They can’t commit until the budget process.”
School Board member Trevor Tucker said next year’s plan should be deferred until the budget outlook is clearer. The board’s focus this evening was on how to finish out this year with proper security.
The security “upgrades” cover just three schools so far, with more ahead. Some $45,000 in upgrades are recommended for Old Kings Elementary, including modifications to the reception area, the installation of security cameras, and fencing improvements. Similar improvements costing $42,000 are recommended for Bunnell Elementary. Improvements at Flagler Palm Coast High School would run to $89,000, with better fencing accounting for more than half the cost. The district is also recommending a $75,000 district-wide radio communication system.
“The group would like to see it more difficult to go from a lobby area into the school,” Mike Judd, the senior director for facilities, told the board this evening. He refrained from giving details about the three schools’ vulnerabilities, after they were visited by a safety team in recent weeks, saying that advertising the vulnerabilities could lead to their exploitation. But he said that parents would eventually be forced into using specific entrances, such as lobbies, instead of being allowed to use any entrance (as at Flagler Palm Coast High School) once they’re on campus. “The entrance to Matanzas is a problem,” he added, referring to the entrance to the campus, which would be altered at “substantial” cost. That part of the proposal was not up for board approval this evening, as it is still ongoing, Valentine told the board this evening. “At this point the things that they’re putting in work order form are the things we can budget,” she said. “Anything major would have to be come part of a five-year plan.”
The security revamp is being prompted by the Newtown, Conn., school shooting on Dec. 14 that claimed the lives of 20 elementary school students and one teacher. The week after school resumed after Christmas, Laura Lauria, a parent at Old Kings Elementary, hired a deputy to stand guard at Old Kings for each eight-hour day, with her own money (close to $12,000 for just two months).
The school board approved the donation and ratified the deputy’s presence, but the move also prompted the board to find a solution quickly that would eliminate the involvement of private money for public schools security. At least two board members were uncomfortable with Old Kings having added security, while other schools remain unguarded.
Valentine had said earlier this afternoon that the hiring of security at the five schools for the remainder of this school year could be done with overtime hires at the board’s expense (each deputy would cost $32 an hour, or $1,200 a week) similar to the private hire of the deputy at Old Kings. The board could still decide in the near future to immediately implement one of the plans the sheriff is proposing, which would be more costly, and would entail hiring the extra deputies onto the sheriff’s ranks. But even if the board did so, it’s not likely to work: the sheriff must still operate within the constraints of the current budget, making the extra hires impossible–unless the county commission enacted an emergency budget amendment on the sheriff’s behalf: that’s not been discussed.
Rather, the sheriff is readier to contribute 25 percent of the costs of hiring extra-duty, or overtime, deputies for the remainder of this year, Manfre said, “through cost savings that we have already accomplished.”
Between the sheriff’s contribution and the year being half over, that gap-closing option would limit the district’s costs considerably, and to less than $100,000.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. at the Government Services Building in Bunnell. It is open to the public.