tampabay.com

Clearwater wants schools to foot bill for officers

By MIKE DONILA
Published June 5, 2007


CLEARWATER - City police have been a part of Clearwater's high schools for 20 years, but with money short that could change.

City Council members on Monday declined during their work session to talk about extending a contract that would keep two school resource officers in Clearwater High and two in Countryside High.

Instead, they said, the School Board should pay the costs.

"I think it's something (they) should pick up, " Mayor Frank Hibbard said during the meeting.

Asked later if the city would relent should the School Board refuse to pay, Hibbard said: "This is our stance right now. We're very serious about it."

While the move was expected - city leaders talked about it last month - it's another example of the stark reality local governments face as state lawmakers plan to change the way cities and counties collect tax revenues.

Already, Clearwater officials have targeted recreation centers, jobs and one library for the chopping block.

By not extending the $519, 400 contract for the school resource officers, which both the city and the School Board pay for, Clearwater saves almost $188, 000.

The proposed cut comes as the Florida Legislature meets next week to talk about tax reform that could slash dramatically the amount of property tax revenues local governments can collect. School boards, however, largely have been excluded from most of the proposals to cut property taxes.

School officials across Tampa Bay say Clearwater, while perhaps the first to take this stance, likely won't be alone because other cities are considering whether they can continue funding the officers.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office provides officers to middle schools, but Sheriff Jim Coats has said he may not have the money to continue at each campus. He said some middle schools in Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Gulfport and Pinellas Park might suffer cuts.

Pinellas School Board Vice Chairwoman Nancy Bostock said board members have talked about facing possible losses and set aside some money.

"We've always placed school safety as our highest priority, and the school resource officers are an integral part of that, " she said.

School resource officers are responsible, in part, for on-campus investigations, heading off fights, building relationships with students and holding seminars.

In early 2006, a school resource officer was credited with helping to stop a Columbine-like incident at Clearwater High School after investigators arrested a student they say was a serious threat to the school.

School Board members say they are ready to spend more on the officers, but are uncertain of the amount needed. Board member Carol Cook said they don't know if the "couple million" set aside will be enough.

The school resource officer program dates back more than 30 years in some school districts. The officers are an added level of security on top of a school district's security force or police department.

Officers have been assigned to Clearwater High School since Jan. 1, 1985, and Countryside High School since Jan. 1, 1986.

School resource officers are placed in all Pinellas and Hillsborough middle and high schools. In elementary schools, the responsibility primarily is left to a district's own police or security staffs.