School days numbered?

Published May 23, 2007

For weeks, local officials have pledged that police and fire would be the last things cut if state lawmakers slash property tax revenue.

But police officers in public schools is a different story.

Across Tampa Bay, funding for school resource officers -- the police who provide public safety in middle and high schools -- are popping up as one of the first cuts local governments plan to make if the Florida Legislature acts next month in a special session to shave local property tax collections.

Gov. Charlie Crist has criticized such plans, saying local officials are using "the fear factor" in an effort to thwart property tax changes.

Local leaders say they don't want to cut the officers, saying they play pivotal roles in the schools. But if forced to reduce their work force, they said they want the officers working streets and neighborhoods.

Cities and counties are bracing for cuts to their operational budgets of 10 percent or more based on discussions during the Legislature's regular session earlier this year. School boards, however, have largely been excluded from most property tax proposals under consideration by lawmakers.

"The school boards are going to have to pick up the ball," said Frank Hibbard, mayor of Clearwater, one of several cities that currently helps the Pinellas School Board cover police costs.

Clearwater's administration last week proposed cutting the $90,000 the city spends to help pay for four officers for the city's two public high schools. This year the money covered about one-third of the cost, with Pinellas County schools picking up the rest.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said middle schools in Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Gulfport and Pinellas Park also could feel impacts because his office may no longer have the money to chip in for the cost of deputies working those schools.

In St. Petersburg, city officials have not publicly discussed cutting its school resource officer program. But city documents mention it as one example of a possible cut.

School officials in Hillsborough say they've heard similar rumblings that county funding for the resource officers could be in jeopardy.

Likewise, in Hernando County, Sheriff Richard Nugent told commissioners last week that cuts may force him to lay off school resource officers.

Area school leaders aren't pleased, but say they understand. And they say they'll try to find a way to pick up the slack.

"It won't be easy, but we're going to have to take those dollars from somewhere else, and that's going to be a detriment from wherever we take it from," said Nancy Bostock, vice chairwoman of the Pinellas County School Board. "Having police officers at the schools is a very high priority for us. In fact, it's at the top of our list."

Hillsborough School Board Chairman Jack Lamb said the board will need to make other cuts to keep the officers, or risk upsetting parents.

School resource officers date more than 30 years in some local districts and are an added level of security on top of districts' security force or police department.

School resource officers are placed in all Pinellas and Hillsborough middle and high schools. In elementary schools, the responsibility is primarily left to districts' own security or sworn officers.

While school resource officers are on campus mostly for student safety, they do a lot more, advocates say.

For example, an Inverness officer once acted as an on-the-spot adviser, talking a student out of suicide. A Largo officer came up with parking solutions and extra curricular programs and eventually beat out 1, 600 school resource officers statewide to be honored as an Officer of the Year in 2006.

Both law enforcement and school officials believe the officers provide positive relationships with the law enforcement community.

"They're an integral part of our school," said Lamb, the Hillsborough School Board chairman. "They're on the campus, in the hallways, in the classrooms and the students realize that the police officers can be their friends. We've worked hard to get that image."

Times staff writers Aaron Sharockman and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.