The Manatee County School District should put the brakes on a fast-track proposal to hire armed private security guards for elementary schools. The public deserves the opportunity to comment and raise concerns.
School safety and security have been the public's top issue for a long time, but the proposal for private security guards only came into view a month ago and then got placed on the school board agenda at last week's meeting with little advance notice.
At the Aug. 26 meeting, the board wisely tabled a vote on approving the district's proposed $3 million, three-year contract with Sarasota Security Patrol.
The district posted the request for private security contract proposals that very same day -- virtually excluding public scrutiny and comment. That's a highly objectionable way to conduct public business.
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One of the other potential vendors, Critical Intervention Specialists, objected -- citing the Sarasota company's connection with the Manatee district's professional standards investigator, Troy Pumphrey. He was listed as a reference on the company's proposal.
District staff attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum evaluated the scoring by members of the award committee, eliminating Pumphrey's marks and finding the same results -- that Sarasota Security Patrol still came out ahead.
The company's improper and troubling reference to Pumphrey is a side issue on the larger questions: Are private guards are the best option? Is cost the driving concern? Would commissioned law enforcement officers provide stronger protection of students and staff? Or is there another option?
We'd like to hear the school board and the public discuss those questions.
The school district already contracts with local law enforcement agencies for resource officers who patrol middle and high schools. Their arrest authority and commanding presence cannot compare with a civilian security guard.
But the cost for expanding that law enforcement presence to 33 elementary schools would be steep -- far higher than private security.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube endorses the return of the five officers who rotated among those schools, and then adding more deputies next year.
Those officers were eliminated during past budget cuts, but now the district is in a stronger financial position.
With arrest and other state-sanctioned powers, SROs are the best protection for all schools. Their authority offers liability shields for the district, too.
Rep. Greg Steube offers another idea. The Manatee-Sarasota legislator plans to introduce a bill in the 2015 session that follows his previous efforts of the last few years.
He's refined his legislation to strengthen the requirements to demand properly trained and competent security personnel -- guards with crisis intervention and school lockdown knowledge. He also told this Editorial Board that active shooter training would be required.
His proposal also features a funding mechanism, something bound to appeal to school districts statewide.
This is an improvement on his previous bills, which would have granted school superintendents the authority to allow school employees to carry concealed weapons on campuses while lacking Steube's stricter training requirements.
This is a better option to the Manatee County school district's current request for proposals on guards, which only requires a year of police, security or equivalent training.
But nothing surpasses law enforcement in schools. Sheriff's deputies and police officers carry a presence that private security will never have.
Parents and the public should have more time to comment on such an important school district policy, and the board should allow that.