Manatee County rejects paying more for school security officers

Less than three months after the high school massacre in Parkland, the Manatee County County Commission voted Tuesday to notify the school district it would not help pay for additional school resource officers at public school campuses.

During Tuesday's county commission meeting, the Manatee County School District proposed paying for 70 percent of the cost for the additional school resource officers for the 2018-2019 school year. The county government would pick up the balance of about $1.36 million.

The commission rejected the proposal, voting 6-1 to have commission Chairwoman Priscilla Whisenant Trace send a letter to school board Chairman Scott Hopes notifying him that Manatee County would not help fund the addition of more school resource officers to schools.

"If we are going to do this, we are going to have to look at raising our taxes, which I don't support," Commissioner Carol Whitmore said.

Other commissioners shared this concern and reluctance. Commissioner Stephen Johnson mentioned how the building of new schools had just been approved so costs were only going to go up.

"I think it would be irresponsible to pay for this mandate without knowing our full budget picture," Benac said.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said she didn't support the nearly $900,000 the county is currently paying a year toward school resources officers.

"When you talk about protecting our children ... the biggest part of our budget goes to our sheriff," Baugh said. "We have a lot of other people we answer to."

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino was the only commissioner to vote against the motion, stating during the discussion that she was in favor of sharing the additional costs.

"I think I differ from the rest of the board. I would support paying our share," DiSabatino said. "We have to make sure our children are safe."

The county commission will continue to split the cost of the officers who had already been in place prior to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County on Feb. 14. The county's current cost is $892,000 a year.

The newly enacted Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, signed by Gov. Rick Scott in March, requires at least one law enforcement officer at every elementary and middle school, and one officer per every 1,000 students in each high school. As a result, the school district has to add an additional 35 school resource officers, something they had voted to do before the law was enacted.

Hopes said the right decision was made when the district voted to use law enforcement officers rather than the other options the law allowed in order to provided armed security at school.

"We are not in the law enforcement business," Hopes said. "According to your own budget, you are in the law enforcement business."

Commissioner Charles Smith said he was not advocating that the school district form it's own police department.

Superintendent Diana Greene said the school district should pay its share for when law enforcement officers are in the schools.

"Our students are in our schools 180 days. If you look at a law enforcement officer's contract, it's 261 days.," Greene said. "Technically, we are paying 100 percent of the time they are with our students."

Greene asked they continue their strong partnership as said she intends to ask the same of the Holmes Beach, Bradenton and Palmetto police departments.

Present at Tuesday's county commission meeting were Sheriff Rick Wells, Bradenton Mayor and Police Commissioner Wayne Poston and Bradenton Chief of Police Melanie Bevan.

Poston later told the Bradenton Herald that the county's letter to the school district will be presented to the city council at their regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday and the issue will be discussed.

"This will be a council decision," Poston said.

Cynthia Keller, who is running for District 6 at-large seat on the commission, also spoke during public comment to express her concern that the county touts how great tourism is but doesn't want to protect its children.

"This is about human lives. Find the money," Keller said. "Find the money because it can happen here."

Keller, a mother and grandmother, said she was appalled that county commissioners were fighting with the school board members over this.

"It's not your fault that the state did this but all of you should have done this 10 years ago. Find the money," Keller concluded.