SROs to be posted to each school; city, county, school board work on funding

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Commissioners Thursday agreed to add $382,400 to the sheriff’s office 2017-2018 budget to hire five additional deputies so the county will have five additional school resource officers (SROs) ready to work in the schools in the fall. The money will come from reserves.

The plan is for the new deputies to be placed on road patrol and more experienced officers move into the SRO positions.

With the addition of two SROs from the city police department, this will bring the total SROs to 13.

The current SRO program has six officers, including five deputies and one sergeant. The plan for the 2018/2019 school year will place an SRO at each public school, with two SROs at Okeechobee High School.

Funding for the SRO program was also discussed at an April 11 workshop with the county commissioners, the Okeechobee County School Board and the Okeechobee City Council. At their last meeting, the Okeechobee City Council voted to add two SROs to the City Police Department. The Okeechobee County School Board helps pay the salaries of the SROs.

The sheriff said in addition to the salaries, they will need to allocate funding for equipment such as cars and laptop computers.

The sheriff said it will be a challenge to recruit and train enough officers.

“I don’t have a surplus of deputies anywhere in my current staff,” he said.

“At our last meeting, I warned I was concerned coastal counties would start picking off our deputies,” said County Commissioner Brad Goodbread.

There are approximately 3,800 public schools in Florida, the sheriff said. “About half of those were manned prior to this bill,” he explained. That means between now and August between 1,500 and 1,800 SROs will be hired in the State of Florida between now and August.

He said other counties are hiring Okeechobee County deputies.

“The benefit package other communities have is better,” he said. “They are taking our seasoned deputies.”

He said one of the current SROs — a 10-year veteran — has already resigned to move to another agency, and two more deputies will likely leave at the end of the month.

“This is one of the things that is going to be difficult to overcome, especially for rural counties,” said County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with the SROs in our schools,” said Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy.

“How can we make this work that is fair to everybody? We all have the same goal of the safety of all of our kids,” he said.

“The sheriff and the chief are the ones who are responsible for staffing,” he said.

“We (the school system) would pledge the entire Safe School amount of $573,000,” he said, in regard to funding available for the SRO program.

County administrator Robbie Chartier said in the past, the county and the school board each funded half of the SRO salaries for 10 months and the county funded the salaries 100 percent for two months.

She suggested another option that would take the total grant amount and divide it by 13 officers, with the county and the city picking up the balance.

Mayor Dowling Watford said they should divide the Safe School grant money by 13, and allocate two/13ths to the city and 11/13ths to the county. This would leaves the city responsible to make up the shortfall for the two city SROs (who will be police officers) and the county responsible to make up the shortfall for the 11 county SROs (who will be deputies.)

Mrs. Chartier said for the 2018/2019 fiscal year, the SROs will cost about $1.22 million.

Subtracting the Safe School grant funds, that would leave the county’s share at $360,552 and the city’s share at $78,817.

Mrs. Chartier added the state Safe Schools grant funding is for the 2018/2019 school year.

The school funding year ends June 30, so any additional money for SROs in the 2017/2018 school year will have to come from the city and county.

City administrator Marcos said the start up costs for the city for the 2017/2018 fiscal year will be about $141,000.

The sheriff said the start-up cost for the county for the remainder of the 2017/2018 fiscal year will be about $382,400.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS Public Safety Act passed by the Legislature, now requires the presence of law enforcement at each school. The sheriff’s office will need to hire additional deputies to fulfill this requirement. The officers need to be hired as soon as possible in order to have them in place before the beginning of the next school year.

“We have to protect the children,” said Chairman Burroughs. “This is just one way.”

Commissioner Kelly Owens noted these are recurring costs. While they hope the state Safe Schools funding will be recurring, there is no guarantee. All of the local officials should continue to lobby the legislature in regard to the funding for the SROs, she added.

Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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