Punta Gorda rejects
cutting school police jobs
PUNTA GORDA — The City Council rejected a proposal Wednesday to eliminate two school resource officer positions to help reduce the city’s anticipated 2013-14 deficit by $100,000.
The consensus was reached after several residents, school officials and council members said they wouldn’t trade the benefits provided by local school policing at any price.
“I don’t believe you can put a price tag on what they provide,” said Harvey Goldberg, a former mayor who spoke during citizen input.
The PGPD’s two school officers are assigned to Charlotte High School and Punta Gorda Middle School. They provide security, gather intelligence and “counsel kids,” said Goldberg.
“They’re almost like pied pipers,” he said. “It’s not by coincidence our city has the second-lowest crime rate for a city our size.”
The proposal to eliminate their jobs was floated by City Manager Howard Kunik, who has been scouring the budget for places to cut. Even if property values remain flat next year, rising operating expenses could still result in a deficit, he said.
The city will get a more detailed budget outlook later this month when a long-range financial plan gets adopted, he said.
The PGPD came under scrutiny because it has two vacant patrol positions. Those positions could be filled by the two school officers. That would allow the school officer positions to be eliminated without layoffs, Kunik said.
The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, which had policed city schools until the city took on the task in 2005-06, would re-assume that responsibility, Kunik said.
Mayor Bill Albers, however, pointed the Sheriff’s Office would fund its deputies from tax revenues, so residents would pay either way.
“(City policing) has helped solve crimes and prevent crimes and it builds that rapport with the kids,” Albers said.
Prior to 2005, local students saw Punta Gorda police as “the bad guys,” said Police Chief Albert “Butch” Arenal.
“They were the guys that gave their teachers tickets and were called in to make arrests,” he said. “The sheriff’s officers were the mentors.”
Since then, kids have learned to trust “the guys in blue,” he added.
Arenal said he didn’t want to lose the positions, but they were the most feasible to cut. In recent years, the police department has eliminated clerical and dispatching positions and is down to a four-car patrol squad, a level Arenal considers “minimal.”
Charlotte County School Board member Alleen Miller, schools security director Steve Cummings, and Sallie Jones Elementary School assistant principal Heidi Keegan all spoke in support of the city’s own school officers.
“We see the importance of the partnership between the school district and the Punta Gorda PD,” said Cummings. “The important thing is the relationship that they have with these kids.”
Councilwoman Rachel Keesling, who has a child in middle school and another at Charlotte High School, lauded School Resource Officer Larry Schrader, who uses a Segway to scoot around Charlotte High. Keesling said she’s seen how kids “seek him out” to report problems such as bullying.
Councilwoman Carolyn Freeland pointed out some residents who don’t have kids in school may not see the need for the officers. However, Freeland called the service a “win-win” because it steers kids away from trouble.
“Even though they aren’t their children, they’re all our children,” added Keesling.