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Twenty sheriff's deputies will help guard Palm Beach schools under new contract

 Like districts across the country, Palm Beach County schools has struggled to fill vacancies in its police department. Now the district is turning to the county sheriff's office for help.
Joshua Polson
The Greeley Tribune via AP
Like districts across the country, Palm Beach County schools has struggled to fill vacancies in its police department. Now the district is turning to the county sheriff's office for help.

Twenty sheriff’s deputies will soon be guarding Palm Beach County public schools, shoring up the district’s police department, which is struggling to maintain its staff. The deal comes as some board members are considering merging the force with the county sheriff’s office. 

The school board voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the million dollar agreement with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, following a discussion on officer morale, student safety and whether the district should outsource its policing.

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“I firmly believe that any concerns with a merger could be addressed in the contract with the sheriff,” said board Vice Chair Karen Brill. “I also firmly believe that it would be to the district's benefit to move school safety to the sheriff and allow us to focus on our core mission of education.”

As of now, the proposal seems to be a theoretical one; Brill acknowledged that Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has told her he’s not interested in taking over the district’s force.

There are currently 65 officer vacancies in the district’s police department, which has more than 200 uniformed officers. Superintendent Michael Burke says there continues to be at least one officer staffing every school, as required by a state law passed in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

“We have every school covered. This contract is to give us a little more depth on the bench,” Burke said. “We don’t like getting this thin. We want to be prepared.”

Under the contract, the sheriff’s office will provide 20 deputies and two sergeants, at a cost of $100 per hour per deputy and $136 per hour per sergeant. That amount includes funding for officer benefits and equipment as well as their hourly pay, according to the district.

The school district already has contracts with six city police departments to provide school safety officers.

Board Member Marcia Andrews said she’s open to a merger and spoke in strong support of the PBSO.

“We need to now look at what a model will look like for us, pre-pandemic, pandemic and now working out of a pandemic with mental health crises everywhere,” Andrews said. “We need to be able to work together. And I just think the sheriff brings that law enforcement piece that we truly need right now more than ever before.”

“I'm worried about another Marjory Stoneman Douglas event,” she added.

Board Member Debra Robinson called for more officer training, raising concerns that a force practiced in responding to serious adult crime might overreact when dealing with children.

“When you criminalize a young person when it's not required by law, there is a lifetime of consequences.” Robinson said. “It’s not just teaching them a lesson, right? There's things that will hang on to them for the rest of their lives.”

Burke says the contract, which runs from April 4, 2022 to May 26, 2023, isn’t meant to be a permanent fix.

“We want to double down on our recruitment effort because we see this as a stop gap, short-term measure,” Burke said. “We are committed to our department.”

Burke says he’s working on addressing officer morale and plans to schedule a time for board members to talk more about the force. The discussion will happen behind closed doors, Burke says, because it involves “security-related” and “sensitive” issues.

Board holds moment of silence for students hit by car at school bus stop

At Wednesday’s meeting, board members offered their prayers and condolences to the four Palm Beach County students hit by a car while waiting at a school bus stop.

One of the students has died of their injuries, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. The Palm Beach Post identified the girl as 15 year old Tiana Johnson.

As of Wednesday evening, three other students from Royal Palm Beach Community High School remained hospitalized.

Board members held a moment of silence to honor the students, their families, and the Royal Palm community.

“A terrible tragedy that happened to our students,” said Andrews, who represents the area. “They were doing the right thing — coming to school, doing what they should be doing, getting ready to get their education. I want to say to the families, our hearts and our prayers go out to you.”

According to officers, a driver lost control of their vehicle early Tuesday morning near Crestwood Boulevard and Cypress Lake Drive. The car hit a curb, veered onto the sidewalk and hit the students.

“My heart absolutely goes out to those families,” Board Member Erica Whitfield said. “My heart is with you and I just … absolute thoughts and prayers for what's going on with these families. It's hard for us at the school district when we hear children have been hurt in our schools.”

Board signs off on tax referendum 

Board members also gave their support Wednesday for extending a tax referendum that would raise some $240 million a year to help fund what they say are critical services. The issue will go on the ballot for county voters to weigh in on during the Nov. 8, 2022 election.

District officials say this year’s measure would be an extension of the property tax increase that voters approved in 2018, which is set to expire in June of 2023.

According to the district, the 2018 measure has funded dozens of new positions, including 110 safety officers and 40 school psychologists, and netted $110 million for raising teacher pay.

The funds support “critical school operating needs including school safety; school police; mental health services; arts, music, physical education, career and choice program teachers; improving teacher pay and for operational needs,” according to board documents.

If voters don’t approve the tax, the district would be forced to “make severe cuts to its operating budget, including significant reductions to arts, music, physical education, career and academic programs.”

The bond would remain at one million, which amounts to $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

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Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.