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Dispute Over School Security Costs Divides Officials In Sarasota

Apr 16, 2018

School districts across Florida are grappling with how to implement a new law adopted after the mass school shooting in Parkland.

In the next  academic year, all schools in the state must have at least one school resource officer on campus.

Most districts say they will split any extra costs not coming from the state with local law enforcement.

But Sarasota County's sheriff recently said his department would no longer do so. That created a public feud between the sheriff, the superintendent, and some school board members.

Elizabeth Djinis, who covers education for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, has reported that Todd Bowden, Sarasota's school superintendent, said the school district would face a $3.1 million deficit if there was no longer a cost-sharing agreement with local law enforcement.

After Sheriff Tom Knight made his announcement, tensions quickly escalated. At a March meeting, School Board member Eric Robinson criticized school superintendent Bowden's management style.

“Eric Robinson essentially said it's the superintendent's fault that we have to pay all this extra money,” said Djinis. "And I think the superintendent got his back up after that. He said to me in later interviews that he knew that was coming because the two of them had a very tense e-mail exchange that morning. The superintendent then kind of turned it around and said Eric Robinson was the one who is partially to blame and that he's been working against the district.”

After the Herald-Tribune uncovered text messages between Robinson and Sheriff Knight through a public records request, the rift grew deeper.

“We were surprised by the scope of what was said,” Djinis said.

Elizabeth Djinis is an education reporter for the Herald Tribune in Sarasota.
Credit Sarasota Herald Tribune

“These text messages appeared to show that Eric Robinson was kind of egging on the sheriff.  I might get some of the exact wording wrong here, but one of the things he said was ‘Let me know if I need to call county commissioners to make sure that we have to pay 100 percent of the costs.'"

Both men also exchanged disparaging remarks about school board member Shirley Brown.

“The sheriff says something like 'Shirley Brown is so dumb, I can't believe she's so dumb,'" said Djinis. "And Eric Robinson says, 'I can.'”

Both Robinson and Knight have since apologized, and Superintendent Bowden released a press release stating that “It is time to remind ourselves of our goal, which is to keep our students safe while at school.”

Even so, community members in Sarasota have expressed dismay over how all parties have acted.  The Sarasota Herald Tribune published an editorial urging leaders to come together to protect students.

“I think that's something that a lot of people are concerned about,” Djinis said. “I think that the question going forward is: Are these messages going to somehow fracture the relationship between the sheriff and the school board to the point that they can't work together?"

Ultimately, Djinis said she thinks they can manage.

“I think to some extent they feel that because schools have always had school resource officers through the sheriff's office and through the local police departments, that they want to stick with that arrangement,” she said. “The other options are kind of difficult to enforce and operate and would be a high cost to the district too. So it looks like despite the tensions they are going to have to move forward and work together on it.”

The Sarasota County School Board is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday.