Jacksonville, FL — Off-duty officers with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office are currently being used to protect more than half of Duval County's public schools, so that the District complies with a new Florida law. But, fresh in to the school year, there are big questions about who exactly will be picking up that bill.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office budget was recently under the spotlight by the City Council Finance Committee, as part of their hearings on Mayor Lenny Curry's $1.2 billion City budget proposal. In that came a warning that JSO overtime hours would likely be up, because they're mandating off-duty officers work shifts at Duval County Public School elementary schools.
“We’re gunna need this Council’s support, to support us in demanding that we get reimbursed. Because $12/hour doesn’t buy one of our JSO officers,” says Curry’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.
Sheriff Mike Williams says they’ve been coordinating for weeks with DCPS to ensure Duval County would be in compliance with a new state law, which requires all schools have armed security on campus. This can be achieved through a sworn police officer, a school resource officer, or a guardian- who is a non-teacher school employee that goes through screening and training, and has a license to concealed carry.
Until now, there have been DCPS Police school resource officers for middle and high schools, but not every elementary school. DCPS Police have previously said the cost of staffing an SRO at every school was too high, so they opted for hiring dedicated guardians, which make around $20,000/year. These guardians- which DCPS is calling school safety assistants- have to go through initial screening by the District, since they would be school employees. Then, JSO conducts psychological and drug screenings, does a polygraph test, and trains the applicant.
Because of that extensive onboarding process, Williams says they've only had 14 clear the process entirely, although DCPS Police previously said at least 24 SSAs had been hired. They're working another class right now that started at 28 people, but is down to 11. Williams says the District is getting plenty of applicants, and they're doing what they can to speed along their screening, but the failure rate at the training academy is currently more than half.
So, with more than 100 sworn officers working overtime at local schools as of now, JSO is keeping a detailed account of the cost they’re racking up.
“With the legislation being very clear that the District is responsible for this, my expectation is that we are reimbursed from the School Board for those costs,” Williams says.
But he says the District has alredy told him they will have challenges in doing that.
“This is what’s kind of frightening- the payback after all this is over, from the school system,” says Councilman Tommy Hazouri.
Hazouri says the District should currently be paying around $12/hour for SSA’s, but instead, there are fully sworn JSO officers being used for that job- meaning the District is racking up an even bigger bill.
“We’re gunna need to go after our money,” Mousa says.
DCPS tells WOKV they are continuing conversations with JSO about how the cost will be covered, but they’re not giving any further insight on where the District stands with potentially covering the cost, how much they expect that to be, and where the money would come from. A statement to WOKV additionally thanked JSO for supporting them by staffing schools that don’t have an SRO or SSA.
“I will add that aggressive recruitment of potential school safety assistants- and even more aggressive vetting- will continue until the school district is fully staffed,” says a statement from DCPS.
WOKV asked DCPS for an updated timeline on filling all of the open SSA positions. The District did not directly comment, but has previously said it hoped to have every school staffed with SSAs within the first nine weeks of the school year. Williams says he believes JSO is still a long way off from getting everyone properly screened and trained.
Williams says this is a problem that's shared across other large school districts as well. We've previously reported about the measures other First Coast school districts are taking to comply with the new law. Williams says some Duval County charter schools have contracted with the Florida Highway Patrol.
WOKV continues to work through the Mayor’s budget proposal, and will continue to update you on how your tax dollars are being spent.