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Hernando school cops, crossing guards may be cut
Crossing guards and school officers may be on the fiscal hit lists.
By Tom Marshall and Barbara Brehredt, Times Staff Writers
Published March 12, 2008
BROOKSVILLE - Crossing guards and around half the police officers stationed in Hernando County schools are in danger of being eliminated next fall due to budget cuts, officials said Tuesday.
Sheriff Richard Nugent said he might not be able to afford his department's roughly 60-percent share of the $979,586 budget for school resource officers due to the passage in January of the Amendment 1 property tax initiative as well as declining property values.
Also endangered: his department's entire $72,421 crossing guard budget.
"This information is being provided to you in the event that our agency is no longer able to provide funding for these school-related programs," Nugent said to school superintendent Wayne Alexander in a March 6 letter obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.
Alexander said the School Board had been expecting the bad news, and would try to fund as much of the shortfall as it could.
"I knew it was coming," he added. "The School Board is going to pay for it, or at least some part of that."
The school district now pays $410,200 to station a school resource officer (SRO) in each of the county's four middle schools, two K-8 schools, and the district's alternative school. The Sheriff's Office budgets $569,386 for four officers at the high school level, plus a "floating" officer to cover for illnesses and training absences.
If the Sheriff's Office cuts those services, including the crossing guards, it would cost the School Board an extra $641,807 per year, Nugent said.
Alexander said the board might shift its SRO funds from the middle school to high school levels if the Sheriff's Office withdraws support. That could mean some middle schools will no longer have their own officer on a full-time basis, or schools might have to share an officer, he said.
"I'm sure they're essential in high schools, because I've been a high school principal," Alexander said. He said he wasn't sure how such officers were being used in middle schools, and planned to find out.
In many schools, SROs fill a wide variety of roles in addition to their primary mission of law enforcement. They teach classes on the law, supervise the cafeteria and help administrators with discipline issues.
Joe Clifford, principal at West Hernando Middle School, said SROs have helped his staff cope with rising levels of drug use and school violence.
"I had a kid arrested for battery," Clifford said. "He had marijuana, crack cocaine and methamphetamines, and that's in middle school. We have one of the lowest discipline rates of any school, but that doesn't mean that kids don't do stupid things."
As for crossing guards, Alexander said he planned to examine each of the 14 crosswalks that are currently guarded - 10 of them in high-density Spring Hill - to determine which are essential.
But district officials said they have lots of questions to ask the Sheriff's Office about the costs of both the SRO and crossing guard programs.
"How many hours do they work?" asked finance director Deborah Bruggink, referring to the crossing guards. "Are they entitled to benefits?
If the whole community benefits from putting SROs in the schools, then the schools shouldn't bear the entire cost, she added.
"I don't think we should have to absorb the full $641,000 (shortfall)," Bruggink said. "That's a lot of money."
But with the Legislature still wrangling over next year's state budget and new County Administrator David Hamilton due to start work Monday, many details are still unknown for both the school and county budgets.
"We don't know what we don't know," said Chief Deputy Michael Hensley. "Obviously we feel that it's prudent as we go forward to begin to evaluate internal programs and personnel."
With looming budget cuts, all Sheriff's Office programs will be prioritized, he said. The school programs were singled out as possible cuts because the School Board provided a possible second source of funding.
The overall sheriff's budget tops $31-million, with 80 percent going to salaries and benefits for 383 employees, including 172 in patrol and operations, Hensley said.
"All of the other things we do are extremely important," Hensley added. "But if you look at our primary mission, it is to answer calls for service, investigate crimes and take people into custody."