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City may take two officers out of schools

If New Port Richey removes the resource officers, the superintendent plans to ask for sheriff's deputies.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2001


If New Port Richey removes the resource officers, the superintendent plans to ask for sheriff's deputies.

NEW PORT RICHEY -- A proposal to take school resource officers out of Gulf Middle School and Schwettman Education Center is drawing sharp criticism from the school district -- starting at the top.

"At a time with all these school tragedies, I'm just puzzled at that decision," Superintendent John Long said Wednesday. "They (SROs) just make our schools so much safer. Having a policeman there is absolutely critical."

Long said that if the city of New Port Richey makes this decision, he'd ask the Pasco Sheriff's Office to staff the positions with deputies. The Sheriff's Office now has 22 SROs in the county's schools, 19 of which are in high schools. Three were put into elementary schools last year, through grant funding obtained by the Sheriff's Office.

In budget negotiations over the next two months, City Council members will consider the proposal to pull the two officers from the schools and put them on patrol. Last year, council members directed the city staff to find a way to eliminate positions through attrition, not layoffs. Two patrol officers have resigned and one sergeant has retired since then.

Initially, City Manager Gerald Seeber estimated that eliminating the SROs would save about $80,000 in salaries. He later acknowledged that by adding what the city spends on benefits for them and taking out $46,300 the School Board grants the city for those positions, the actual savings to the city would be about $55,000.

New Port Richey police Chief Aage Madsen said the Sheriff's Office likely would step up and provide the SROs. The Sheriff's Office already provides an SRO for the city's Gulf High School.

"We need the personnel on the road," Madsen said. "There are three less people working the roads, and their work load hasn't gone down. The officers have been working a lot of overtime and need some help. Both officers are doing an excellent job in the two schools and will be sorely missed."

Long, however, was particularly upset, noting that Zephyrhills, Dade City and the Sheriff's Office have applied for federal grants to put SROs in elementary schools.

At a time when they "realize the value of the program and are doing everything they can to increase it, I'm surprised you'd have a police chief that would want to decrease it," he said.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers said Sheriff Bob White would "certainly consider adding SROs" to Gulf and Schwettman. "He's always been a strong advocate of the SRO program."

Administrators at the schools lamented the possible loss of the SROs and spoke of the officers' value to faculty and students.

"He understands our kids, who are experiencing some tough times," Randy Koenigsfeld, principal of 150-student alternative school Schwettman, said of its SRO.

Gus Manticos, assistant principal at Gulf Middle, lauded his SRO's involvement with the kids, coaching football and track, putting together a weight room, and even monitoring school dances. "He works very, very hard for us. He's a real counselor to them," Manticos said.

The officers said it would be difficult to leave the close working relationships they've established with the kids and faculty.

"In the counseling we do, you're really the brother, the father, the ear to those kids," said Officer Ken Petrillo, who has been at Schwettman for the past seven years. "You'd be surprised how much good it does when you get these kids one on one."

Officer Keith Campbell, who has been at Gulf Middle for seven years, also said he'd be disappointed to leave.

"You get to know these kids, you touch them, and when you're out on the road they come up to you," he said. "The kids realize that you're human and not out there to throw cuffs on them."

Council members said that although they realized the value of the SROs to the schools, they also were feeling the tight budget.

"I've seen firsthand that (the officers) have a rapport with the students and there are intangible benefits to the city and the school to them being there," said council member Ginny Miller. "It comes down to money. If the sheriff could staff those positions, that's the thing I think that they should do."

"I'm disappointed, but we're really between a rock and a hard place," said Mayor Wendy Brenner. "We desperately need to put some folks back on the road and for the general citizen population. "

- Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229.

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