WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In just days, Palm Beach County deputies will begin patrolling public school campuses to keep students safe as the School District of Palm Beach County grapples with a shortage of school police officers.
School board members voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve a contract with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office to allow 20 deputies to cover and patrol schools.
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The Palm Beach County School District Police Department currently has more than 60 vacant positions, brought on, in part, by officers resigning, retiring, or moving to other agencies for higher pay.
Under the plan approved Wednesday, deputies will be provided to schools on an as-needed basis from April 4 until May 26, 2023.
"It's not an ideal situation. We'd much prefer to have our own force fully staffed," Superintendent Mike Burke said. "That's our goal and it continues to be our goal."
Burke added the school district currently has contracts with police agencies in West Palm Beach, Jupiter, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Boca Raton, and Palm Beach Gardens to provide law enforcement resources to school campuses.
Burke said those six agencies and PBSO are providing a total of 32 law enforcement officers to the school district.
"We have enough officers within Palm Beach County, our own force, to cover the schools. But we don't like getting this thin. We want to be prepared," Burke said. "We want to have a little more depth."
The school district will allocate $100 per hour for deputies and $136 per hour for sergeants. Burke said that money will go toward hourly wages, as well as costs associated with the job including vehicles and equipment.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office will decide the exact pay for the deputies.
"The agency then takes that rate and pays for the officer, the officer's benefits, their vehicle, their equipment, their training, their oversight and supervision," Burke said.
According to school district documents, the utilization of Palm Beach County deputies will cost the district around $1 million out of the school police department's operating budget.
School district police officers can earn anywhere between $27.23 and $46.54 per hour, according to the school district's website.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said deputies and sergeants who sign up on their off-days to work for the district will make time-and-a-half their current hourly wage, as their work for the school district would be considered overtime.
As she's done twice in the past, School Board Vice Chair Karen Brill on Wednesday suggested the school district consider a formal merger with the sheriff's office.
"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," Brill said.
Board Member Marcia Andrews said that when it comes to school security, the sheriff's office can "take it to another level," adding the agency brings an expertise that school police officers don't necessarily have.
"We need to go back and re-evaluate everything that we're doing," Andrews said. "I just think the sheriff brings that law enforcement piece that we truly need right now more than ever before."
Burke addressed the issue of a possible merger Wednesday, saying he's recently spoken to Bradshaw and claimed the sheriff is not interested in a takeover.
"I have a good relationship with the sheriff," Burke said. "I reached out to the sheriff's office for these additional 20 officers. This was our doing."
A sheriff's office spokesperson told WPTV in February that PBSO will provide roughly 20 deputies to cover 20 schools.
There are more than 170 public schools in the district. The remaining campuses will continue to be covered by school district police officers.
In the wake of the devastating mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018, all public school campuses in Florida are now required to be manned by at least one law enforcement officer.
If you're interested in becoming a police officer in the School District of Palm Beach County, click here to fill out an application.