Commissioners defer decision on SRO requests in Citrus public schools

Citrus County commissioners could not agree how many school resource officers are needed in Citrus County, so they’ll have a special meeting in two weeks with the school board and Sheriff Mike Prendergast to hammer it out.

Without voting on whether to approve the sheriff’s request for additional funding to cover new school resource officer costs, commissioners decided during Tuesday’s board meeting to have a special meeting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, April 10, in commission chambers to determine the total number of SROs and how to pay for them.

Commissioners agreed with Superintendent of Schools Sandra “Sam” Himmel that five is the minimum number of additional SROs needed, which would provide an SRO for each school as required by a new state law passed in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at a South Florida high school.

Prendergast, however, is requesting nine SROs plus a sergeant to provide additional supervision for the growing force -- at a cost of $978,000 for the remainder of the county's and sheriff's office's fiscal year.

Commissioners were reluctant to support that request without knowing exactly where the funding will come from and whether there are alternatives to the SRO program to meet the requirements of the law and provide adequate school security.

“In my mind, we still haven’t agreed on exactly what’s needed by all parties,” Commission Chairman Ron Kitchen Jr. said. “There doesn't seem to be a firm agreement on what's needed, and that would have to happen before we know what the cost is.”

Commissioners also voiced disappointment with a perceived lack of communication between the county commission, school board and superintendent, and the sheriff’s office prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

“What I feel like should have happened is all of the stakeholders — yourself, the county commission, and the school board — to have sat down,” Commissioner Kinnard said to Prendergast. “I don't feel like there's been good cooperation.”

Kinnard also raised the possibility of hiring a private security firm to meet the new law’s one-officer-per-campus requirement, but the sheriff and Himmel were not enamored with the possibility.

Nor was Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith, a former security officer.

“I can tell you...one of the very first questions they asked me was how I'd feel about shooting somebody,” he said of his security training. “That's not really the mentality you want going in (to schools).”

Carnahan later added: “Certainly if the sheriff and superintendent say 'we don't want them in our schools,' I wouldn't advocate for that and I wouldn't support it."

After the meeting, the superintendent and the sheriff both expressed hope that the details could be ironed out at the special meeting.

“I think it’s good that we all come to the table together. We’ve got one pot of money we’ll give to the sheriff’s office, which certainly doesn't cover one school resource officer at every campus,” Himmel said. “I know he’s having to set his budget and ask the board of county commissioners for money. I think all of them want to know what’s being asked for.”

Prendergast said said he saw progress.

“There’s costs associated with it, but one mistake and it makes all of this other stuff, the debate, an academic failure," he said. "Nobody wants to be here on this team — whether the five commissioners sitting up there, my team, the school board or the superintendent and her folks — nobody wants to have a failure happen here."

He added: "There’s a lot of challenges, but it’s also an opportunity for us to get it right.”

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