Marion school safety: Total for three SRO contracts increased by 20% to $4.34M per year

·5 min read

The cost of Marion's 57 gun-toting school resource officers continues to rise, with three-year contracts with law enforcement agencies climbing by 20% since the last three-year contract in 2019.

Over the summer, the Marion County School Board approved three-year contracts, one each with Ocala Police Department, Marion County Sheriff's Office and Belleview Police Department.

During the last waive of contracts, signed in 2019, the cost per year for all the officers was $3,623,617. The average annual cost for the three contracts signed this year was $4,345,687.

2019-20: School security price tag is $4.65M per year

2019: Active shooter drills continue in Marion

2020: District wants partial refund since SROs were on the road in April

The 20% increase is due in part to the rising cost of equipment and fuel that the officers use. Two-thirds of the cost of the law enforcement officers is paid with proceeds from the 1 mill school tax that voters last approved in 2018. It expires on June 30.

The 1 mill tax, which is expected to generate $37 million in 2022-23, is needed to help fund school safety and to keep afloat vocational, art and music programs. Funds also are used for more teachers to reduce class sizes and to hire paraprofessionals.

According to the contracts, the annual cost of the Ocala Police Department's 18 school resources officers, who cover schools within the city limits of Ocala, rose 14.4%, the lowest annual increase among the three agencies.

The average annual cost of the Ocala police contract for school resource officers jumped from $75,000 per year in the 2019 contract to $85,833 per year in the 2022 contract, according to an Ocala Star-Banner analysis.

Meanwhile, the Marion County Sheriff's Office average annual contract rose by 23.9%, according to the analysis. The cost with the sheriff's office will be $2.34 million in 2022-23 and then $2.93 million in each of the final two years of the contract.

The sheriff's office employs 38 deputies at school campuses. The average per-deputy annual cost climbed from $58,421 per deputy in 2019 to $71,842 per deputy in 2022, according to documents.

Meanwhile, the annual cost of Belleview Police Department's one officer went from $53,617 in 2019 to $70,687 in 2022, an increase of 31.8%. Despite the hike, the new salary is now more in line with the the other agencies.

In all, the three contracts for the three-year periods went from $10.8 million in the 2019 contract to $13 million in the 2022 contract, a 20% increase.

Safe Schools director shares about the mission to better protect all schools

Dennis McFatten, director of the district's safe schools department, said the district is still adding school security equipment at schools, from fencing to buzzers. But one item that is taking time to get is surveillance equipment.

Though most schools have video equipment in place, there is a need for newer equipment. But it is taking nearly a year to get some for the equipment due to inventory shortages and, in some cases, a computer chip backlog.

"We see that there are also labor issues and labor shortages," McFatten told the school board recently. "When we order a set of cameras, it may take us six to eight months to get them."

McFatten also noted that the district does not want to purchase a large number of cameras at once because "we don't want to purchase a whole bunch of cameras and have them sitting on the shelf, because the warranty is running at that point."

McFatten said the district is also "competing with districts all over the state of Florida, all over the United States, trying to buy cameras and this electronic equipment to put into schools."

Dennis McFatten speaks at the Governor's West Ocala Neighborhood Revitalization Council in 2018.
Dennis McFatten speaks at the Governor's West Ocala Neighborhood Revitalization Council in 2018.

McFatten said the district has seen a surge of phone calls from concerned parents after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

"That's why we do with all of our fencing," McFatten noted. "Once we get the fencing up, it creates a single-point of entry and it forces everybody into the front office of the school."

McFatten said there have been many mass shootings since Columbine in 1999. He noted that calls are pouring into "my office wondering what Marion County Public Schools is doing to protect our students and staff."

"As in the past, Marion County Public School staff has already started reviewing our procedures and best practices to determine the most effective way to address threats of school violence," McFatten noted.

McFatten says the district has many 'best practices' in place

McFatten said that the district has "a robust system in place that greatly reduces the chances of a school shooting."

"But if it does happen, we have best practices in place that should minimize injury and loss of life," McFatten noted. "One of the keys is to provide our students a community with tools and resources to anonymously report (unusual behavior)."

"Other best practices include school security sweeps prior to school," he said, adding that schools use intercom classroom emergency buttons.

"We must all do our part to make our schools a better place," McFatten said. "So as we move forward, we will be continued to be vigilant. We are doing everything we can to keep our kids safe."

School Board member Nancy Thrower saluted McFatten, who also addressed school safety plans on buses, and his team.

Nancy Thrower took part in the Marion County Public School Board meeting in July at the MTI auditorium.
Nancy Thrower took part in the Marion County Public School Board meeting in July at the MTI auditorium.

Thrower said it is "certainly comforting to me as a board member to know that all of the bases are being covered, obviously our schools, but extending out to our other buildings, making sure that our staff has the level of protection that's needed."

"And also our bus drivers on the road with our most precious cargo, our children and themselves," Thrower noted of the fact school bus security is also high on the list. "So all this is really wonderful to hear."

Board member Don Browning also agreed with Thrower, stating that "it is a joy" to see law enforcement vehicles parked at the schools and that alone gives parents a sense that children are being protected."

Joe Callahan can be reached at (352) 817-1750 or at Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Marion County, Florida schools: Cost of security rises