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School security plan may cost staff

School employees and volunteers might have to pay for fingerprinting every five years under a legislative mandate.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published October 16, 2004

TAMPA - Every Tuesday and Thursday, the Hillsborough school district plans to fingerprint teachers, staff and volunteers, working through a roster of about 20,000 people over the next five years.

When the task is complete, the district will start again, in keeping with a new state law intended to protect students.

The School Board will consider Tuesday whether its employees should pay for that practice - and the monitoring that accompanies it - at a cost of $84 for each five-year period.

"I expect we're going to have some pretty upset employees if there's not some cost sharing or something," said Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

The new fingerprinting rules came from the Florida Legislature, with the idea of better shielding children from dangerous adults. The method - ongoing background checks for those who come in direct contact with students - won near-unanimous support among lawmakers.

As school districts prepare to put the theory into practice, though, the plan earns low marks among some school employees, who bristle at the idea of paying extra so the government can keep track of their fingerprints and monitor whether they are criminals.

"It's one of those things that starts out as a real good idea in Tallahassee. Certainly, you want children to be safe and you don't want dangerous felons in the classroom," Lyons said. "On the other hand, I don't think they ever gave any thought to the cost element of implementing something like this."

Hillsborough is among the first to tackle the new rule, which took effect in July but does not have to be in place until 2009. Why the early start? It will take time, school officials say, to collect all those fingerprints.

Previously, districts fingerprinted all new employees, who paid a $61 fee. But if records came up clean, the fingerprints were discarded.

The new work will require additional staff, and cost at least $200,000 a year, said Linda Kipley, general manager of the school system's professional standards division. To defray the cost, she has proposed that employees continue to pay the fingerprinting fee, plus the $6 annual fee that the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement charge to monitor prints.

Because the state will store prints for only five years, she added, employees should have to pay a reprinting fee every fifth year, too.

"The law clearly states what the parameters are, and all school districts will need to comply," Kipley said. "We have looked at many ways to have as little impact on our employees as possible."

Lyons, who has asked for a compromise, predicted a battle Tuesday.

"It's exorbitant, particularly for someone getting employment for the first time and getting the least amount of pay," she said. "It's a hot button issue."

Board vice chairwoman Candy Olson said she expected employees to complain.

"I imagine they would, and I don't blame them," she said. "But I don't know how we would afford to pay for it. It's another unfunded mandate."

She suggested that the law might be an overreaction to concerns about school security and expressed doubts that the state could track school employee activities around the country.

"The state doesn't even review to see if voters are registered in another place," Olson said.

Some districts are watching and waiting.

Pinellas County continues to fingerprint only new employees, hoping for more guidance from the state, associate superintendent Ron Stone said.

"We sent a series of questions and are hoping to get the interpretation," Stone said. "We just haven't seen that yet."

Pasco County officials want to know if the Legislature meant to require background checks of volunteers, college students who visit classes and even doctors who assess student health at schools.

"We keep asking ourselves, "Is this what the legislators intended?' " said Ray Gadd, administrative assistant to the superintendent. A big concern, he added, is whether to pass the cost on to employees or absorb it.

Gadd also worried that the review of every employee likely will tag some who had past arrests that were known and accepted before they were hired years ago.

That will require a team to investigate each incident again, at considerable time and expense, he said: "It's more than just fingerprinting people."

Jade Moore, the longtime executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, called the entire effort "nonsensical."

Districts check potential hires' backgrounds before employing them, Moore said, and it's near impossible to escape detection afterward if arrested.

Many districts, including Hillsborough, already get alerted to arrests by local law enforcement.

Existing rules requires a school employee to report any new arrest, or face immediate dismissal and loss of license, Moore added.

In more than 30 years, he said, he could not recall a single instance where this law would have made a difference - and Moore admits he has represented some "perverts and really bad people."

"Talk about a misguided use of taxpayer money," he said. "It is a horrible overreaction to a problem that doesn't exist."

The idea for increased fingerprinting and monitoring emerged as an initiative from many groups that agreed the people closest to children should meet minimum security requirements, said Lee Constantine, the Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate's Education Committee.

But if districts detect unintended consequences, the law can be changed, he said. Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, agreed.

"As always, we'd be happy to take a look at whether this kind of legislation is working in practice the way it was intended in theory, and whether the fee is appropriate for the work involved," Lee said.

"But I don't see us going backward in this country any time soon when it comes to protecting our children."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or solochek@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 16, 2004, 01:00:34]


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