FORT WALTON BEACH — The Okaloosa County School Board voted 4-1 Monday to approve spending more than $500,000 to keep school resource officers in every elementary school.
School board member Melissa Thrush opposed the measure, citing a lack of funding, after a discussion that was at times heated and emotional.
At the end of December, Sheriff Larry Ashley decided to shift 26 deputies to cover Okaloosa’s elementary schools in response to the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people earlier.
Ashley said the resource officers will cost $1.1 million through the end of the school year in June.
He has asked the school board to chip in half to cover the cost.
“I was very proud of our school board members,” Ashley said after the vote. “They understand that we had no response to an armed subject walking into our elementary schools prior to Jan. 7.”
He told the school board he had considered bringing a shotgun to the meeting to reiterate how important a resource officer can be in the case of an armed suspect.
The school board will now allocate $523,000 from reserves to fund the new officers. Another $42,000 will be covered by Radar Group, the private company that runs two charter schools in the district, said Rita Scallan, chief financial officer for the school district.
The county commission has been asked to supply $265,000 and Ashley said he will provide $300,000 from forfeiture funds to make up the other half of the $1.1 million.
The commission is set to vote on the proposal Jan. 22.
To place officers in all the schools, Ashley had to pull them from several other units, including completely depleting his street crimes, beach and marine patrol and traffic enforcement units.
The funds would be used to hire new officers to fill those positions that were left vacant after the shift.
Ashley has said keeping the resource officers in schools will cost about $3.5 million a year.
School board members seemed to agree that Monday’s vote was a stop-gap for the rest of the year, but several had questions about how or whether the program should be funded in the future.
“The safety of our children is of course all of our concern,” said board member Dewey Destin. “As a temporary measure and at this amount of money, I will support it.”
He said at this time he does not support spending another $3.5 million to continue the program in the future. Instead, he hopes the board can come up with a less expensive way to provide safety.
Before the resource officer vote, school board members unanimously approved asking staff to evaluate school security and come up with recommendations to improve it.
Thrush said she wished the board would wait to vote on funding for the resource officers until all options had been evaluated.
She said she felt Ashley had made the decision to place the officers without asking the school board first.
At times, she choked back tears as she talked about keeping schoolchildren safe and imagining the kids who died at Sandy Hook Elementary, but her concern about approving the measure was funding, which should go toward education first, she said.
“We cannot adequately fund existing education needs in our schools,” she said, citing cuts in guidance counselors and staffing specialists. “Despite this insufficient funding, our schools are still very safe.”
She and chairman Rodney Walker exchanged some heated barbs. She asked him what had changed since the beginning of the year to make the funding such a priority.
“Twenty-something people were killed, that’s what’s different,” Walker said. “None of us wish that we were living in the atmosphere that we’re now living in, but it’s here.”
Board member Cindy Frakes said the board should ask parents what they are willing to give up to fund the officers.
"Somebody’s got to give up something and we’ve got to find out what they’re willing to give up,” she said.
County Commissioner Dave Parisot told the school board it should completely foot the bill for the resource officers and the county should not be asked to chip in any funds.
He also said he is not sure the resource officers will necessarily be effective to prevent school shootings.
“A deputy is a single individual that can only be in one place at one time,” he said.
After the vote, the tension of the meeting continued in the hallway between Ashley and Parisot.
Ashley, who told Parisot “our priority is elementary school kids and everything else is secondary,” expressed some frustration.
“You can run the sheriff’s office, you can run the tax collector’s office, you can run the school board meeting, you have got a better plan than everybody else, but I don’t have to listen to it,” he said. “You constantly undermine us.”
Parisot continued to argue that the school board should fund the school resource officers alone.
“I didn’t want to get into an argument in the hallway,” Parisot said to Ashley. “It’s when you turned on me, Larry, and said I’m taking it personally.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.