BRADENTON -- A proposed $3 million contract for armed security officers in elementary schools has come under intense scrutiny as questions have risen over the merits of armed officers in elementary schools, the rapid-fire process taken by Manatee County School District officials in implementing the plan and whether relationships between the company and a key member of the award committee affected results of the bid process.
The $1 million-a-year three-year contract is set to be awarded to Sarasota Security Patrol on Tuesday night, pending Manatee County School Board approval. The proposal was on the board agenda two weeks ago, but board members tabled the resolution to allow more time to answer questions and review the proposal. One of the contract contenders, Critical Intervention Services, staged a protest at district offices, specifically citing the security services relationship with Troy Pumphrey, professional standards investigator.
Pumphrey, who is listed as a reference for the winning company, will lead the school board in a workshop discussion before Tuesday's vote, according to the agenda.
The district received 12 proposals judged by a panel of five, including Pumphrey; Mike Rio, the principal at Mills Elementary School; Dawn Walker, from the Manatee Education Association; McArthur Sellars, a retired officer; and Ronald Cathel Jr, a retired officer and substitute teacher in the district.
Sarasota Security Patrol ranked the highest among the 12 companies, with Critical Intervention Services and Kent Security Services receiving the next-highest marks.
Chad Ritchie runs Sarasota Security Patrol, headquartered on Main Street in Sarasota. In addition to providing armed security officers, the company handles repossessions, conducts private investigations and manages parking lots. The company has been family-owned and operated since 1962 and has experience working in schools, Ritchie said.
In its application, Sarasota Security Patrol lists the Manatee County School Board, and specifically Pumphrey, as a reference. The company also lists the Sarasota County Public Safety Hospital District, the Island Village Montessori School and Red Commercial Property Managements as references.
Pumphrey was also on the committee that reviewed the request for proposal before it was sent out.
Sarasota Security Patrol has not provided security services yet at a Manatee school. But the company was hired to work in the support buildings when the district laid off employees, Pumphrey said. The district paid the company $19,000 to provide one officer each in the School Support Center, the Professional Support Center and the Matzke Complex from May 1 to June 30.
District officials called the company again during the first 1 1/2 weeks of school to provide security at the Parent Information Center. Pumphrey said parents were trying to register their students last minute and the atmosphere was hectic.
"They've never been in our schools," he said.
The company has not yet billed the district for the impromptu service, Pumphrey said.
Pumphrey's connection to Sarasota Security Patrol is of concern to the company ranked No. 2 in the proposal process.
Employees from Critical Intervention Services, a company founded in 1992 that serves the Tampa Bay area, showed up at the district offices Aug. 25, according to an email that staff attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum sent to school board members.
"The issues appeared to be focused on Troy Pumphrey and his use as a contact within the bid from Sarasota Security," Teitelbaum's email said.
Teitelbaum then evaluated the scoring criteria to see if the results remained unchanged, he said. He removed Pumphrey's scores, he removed the criterion of references and he removed an eligibility clause, as requested by employees. Each time he did so, the results remained unchanged, Teitelbaum said.
"Despite changing the criterion on three separate occasions, the results of the request for proposal went unchanged," Teitelbaum wrote. "Sarasota Security Services always remained the winning bidder."
Critical Intervention Services' company officials say they have legitimate concerns and complaints regarding the request for proposal process.
Critical Intervention Services officials "plan on addressing these concerns formally with the appropriate representatives of the Manatee County School District," according to a statement sent Thursday to the Herald.
The company had not filed a formal bid of protest with the district, which requires a $5,000 bond, as of Thursday afternoon. The deadline to file is today, according to Teitelbaum.
If a formal bid is filed, the district would be required to table the issue, undergo an informal negotiation period and then, if the issue cannot be resolved, it would be sent to the Department of Administrative Hearings. A representative would review the bids and make a decision.
Rush to judgment?
The district's request for proposal, which will also serve as the contract, was posted on the district website Aug. 26, the same day as the board meeting. With that as a primary objection, board members moved to table the issue until the next meeting. Board member Karen Carpenter advised district officials to slow the pace.
"We need to slow down and listen more and get more input as we're moving ahead with major projects," she said at the end of the last board meeting.
The district currently contracts with local law enforcement to provide school resource officers, commonly called SROs, in the district's high schools and middle schools.
District officials have said providing SROs in the elementary schools would be too costly, and that the armed security officers are a better option. Providing security officers in schools is in line with priorities set out by community members in a district survey, officials said.
"It was the No. 1 request from parents in the community," board chair Julie Aranibar said Thursday at a Tiger Bay Club meeting, referencing a community survey district officials circulated last year. The survey did not address bringing armed private security officers into elementary schools.
Board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner has been critical of the district's plan from the start, repeatedly calling the armed security officers "rent-a-cops" and advocating for a different plan.
"The twisted way that this has come about has resulted in something I don't think is good for the community," Miner said.
Board member Barbara Harvey has been an outspoken proponent of the plan, saying that any security in schools is better than no security.
"For us to be able to have security in every elementary school, every middle school and every high school speaks volumes for Manatee County," Harvey said when the plan was first announced.
At the last board meeting, Harvey agreed to table the initiative, but said she would be very upset and angry if there is an issue in a school that could have been handled by an armed security officer.
The district requires that guards in the schools have a minimum of one year of police, security or equivalent training; the ability to positively interact with the general public; the ability to lift 50 pounds, run up and down stairs and rapidly respond to crises inside or outside. The contract also requires all security officers have a level II security clearance.
"The County prefers a vendor capable of providing more experienced security personnel than is required by these specifications, particularly those with past experience in public sector work," the contract reads.
The district would also prefer officers who speak both English and Spanish.
The contract requires the company to provide all screening and testing required for employees to carry firearms, provide appropriate uniforms, provide field supervision including weekly unannounced inspections, and be able to start within 48 hours of the award.
Filling a need
The community survey on budget and planning priorities listed "maintaining safe and secure school buildings and grounds" as a priority among 87 percent of the 912 respondents -- including parents, district employees and students -- who answered that question, according to a copy of the survey results presented to the board by the Citizen's Budget Advisory Committee in January.
"Safety of school buildings" was ranked a high priority by 76 percent of 885 respondents who answered that question. Three-quarters of the 910 respondents marked having a security entry point at every school as a high priority.
A summary of recurring themes from an open-ended question about what the district could do better included increasing resources to prevent bullying, enforcing discipline rules and securing additional "resource officers." The district's community survey did not directly ask respondents about armed security officers.
Superintendent Rick Mills, Deputy Superintendent of Operations Don Hall and Aranibar have all pointed to the survey as showing the community's desire for better security in the schools.
But Miner said the results aren't that clear. The community also ranks keeping salaries and benefits competitive to attract and retain talented staff as a priority, and recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers as a high priority.
"They're using this survey as justification when there wasn't any," Miner said.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said he wants the five officers who once rotated among elementary schools to return to those posts. Several years ago, budget cuts forced the officers to be cut.
After learning the school board had about $1 million for security, Steube met with Pumphrey.
"I expressed to him that I would rather see those five SROs brought back," Steube said. "The economy is getting better, so the next year add five and the next year five, until we get to the number SROs people think we should have."
The school district came to him too late in this year's budget process, however, and he had already submitted his budget to the county commission.
Steube said that if the school district chooses armed security guards, the sheriff's office would support the decision.
He does have concerns, however.
"If the school board votes to have armed security, how many of those security officers are going to have the type of training that police officers and military have?" Steube said.
For the next budget year, Steube said the school district would need to begin negotiations with the county commission mid-school year if they are interested in bringing SROs back into elementary schools.
-- Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, contributed to this report.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.