Tension boils over in e-mail

Published June 15, 2007

Don't want to pay for police officers in high schools?

Well, maybe you shouldn't be flying to Philadelphia for a baseball game on the taxpayers' dime, Pinellas County school superintendent Clayton Wilcox suggested to Clearwater officials this month.

The recrimination was just one snippet of a candid e-mail Wilcox dashed off June 5 to the Clearwater city manager after learning from a newspaper that Clearwater city officials planned to cut subsidies for police officers in public high schools.

Wilcox said Thursday he regretted the e-mail's tone. But the correspondence, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times through a public records request, is a window to the strained tensions building in local governments over the state's upcoming property tax cuts and the evolving politics.

"I find the current posturing by local governments through the media and the juxtaposition of de-funding SRO's (school resource officers) and traveling to baseball games in the name of economic development interesting," Wilcox wrote to City Manager Bill Horne.

Horne received the e-mail just days after he, Mayor Frank Hibbard and the City Council returned from a $4,700 trip to watch the Philadelphia Phillies and talk with the team's management about moneymaking ventures in Clearwater, the team's spring training home for more than 60 years.

Also in the note, Wilcox reminds Horne that just last summer he proposed shifting the contracts for four officers in Clearwater's two high schools to the sheriff's office to save "thousands of dollars," but that it was Hibbard and the police chief who insisted that local officers stay involved.

"For the mayor to just now find this new religion is perplexing at best," Wilcox wrote.

Wilcox said he tried to call city officials after learning from a Times reporter June 4 that the city wanted the School Board to pay the full $519,400 two-year contract to keep four officers in two high school. Clearwater pays $188,000.

But when Wilcox hadn't been called back by the next morning, when the Times ran a story reporting Clearwater and other governments' plans to cut school resource officer funding, he fired off the e-mail.

Wilcox said he's apologized, adding "it probably wasn't my best moment." He added that the School Board is committed to keeping the officers.

"Whether they come from our police, the Pinellas sheriff or some other agency, our schools will be safe and secure with law enforcement on the campus," Wilcox said Thursday.

Horne said "there are no grudges" and the three will meet in July to discuss the program. City officials didn't return Wilcox's initial calls because they were in a closed meeting into the evening, he said.

Hibbard also said he wasn't worried about the e-mail.

"Everyone agrees that the school resource officers are an important component to the safety of our schools," he said. "It's just a matter of how they're funded ... and ultimately whose responsibility they are."

The cuts comes as state lawmakers talk about drastically reducing the amount of property tax revenue local governments can collect. Clearwater could take a $6-million hit.

Times writer Donna Winchester contributed to this story.

Fast facts: What the superintendent's e-mail said
Excerpts from the June 5 e-mail from Pinellas County school superintendent Clayton Wilcox to Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne.

Subject: Frustration

Bill ... I hope the Mayor was misquoted in the paper this morning, when he reportedly said "I think it's something (they) should pick up." Although from later remarks it doesn't appear that he was. You may need to remind him that he personally lobbied me to maintain the current relationship with Clearwater PD, just last year, as did the Chief and a number of your counsel (sic) members.

You may remember the gnashing of teeth last fall which prompted those pleas - when I wanted to relieve you of the now "apparent burden" by contracting for SRO services with the Sheriff's Office, which then would have saved taxpayers and the district thousands of dollars - for the Mayor to just now find this new religion is perplexing at best ...

On a personal note Bill - I would have expected the courtesy of a call before the news media started to call or at least word given to your administrative assistant to let my call through - rather than to say you were in meetings and be left to ask for someone I could speak to - only to be sent to a PIO who didn't pick up ... and then bounced to a secretary who didn't pick up.