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    Pasco school volunteers face new $41 background check fee

    By Jeffrey S. Solochek,

    The Pasco County school district is asking volunteers to pay a $41.25 background screening fee to continue working in the schools. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

    Want to volunteer in Pasco County schools?

    It’s going to cost you.

    Citing a desire to enhance student security, the Pasco school district this week told its thousands of volunteers that if they want to continue helping, they’ll have to pay $41.25 for what’s called a Level 2 background check. That state and national fingerprint-based check is renewed every five years, and includes fingerprinting and regular monitoring of state and federal crime databases for updates.

    Up to this point, the district did not conduct such screenings for all volunteers, only those who had activities where they were alone with students. Most volunteers received free Level 1 checks, which are state-only name-based reviews.

    The new approach came about as officials determined that all volunteers could possibly be in a position of unsupervised time with students.

    “We know this additional background screening places a financial responsibility on our volunteers,” the district wrote in the unsigned email. “But the District believes this step is necessary to ensure we have up to date background information pertaining to all adults that interact with students and staff on our campuses. Our students’ safety is always our first priority.”

    Social media — and communication with the district — blew up as the announcement spread.

    Several people expressed approval with the district taking added steps to ensure children’s safety, and said the money was minimal to achieve that result.

    “Overall, protecting our kids from dangerous adults is something I will always support,” said Crystal Lazar, a Wiregrass Elementary parent.

    Still, Lazar and many others worried the added cost might prevent some people from volunteering, particularly in schools that serve lower-income families.

    “While I understand the impetus behind requiring a level 2 background check for all volunteers, I am gravely concerned about the impact this will have not only on our school, but on all Title 1 schools in our county,” Gulf Middle School parent engagement coordinator Liz Kuhns said via email. “Our volunteers are the backbone of our school. We cannot do it without them!”

    It’s been a “nightmare” to get parents to volunteer before the added cost of a background check, said Danielle Dukes, who has served on the advisory council and PTO at Marlowe Elementary.

    “I don’t even know if I can afford the fee to volunteer next year,” Dukes said. “The poor schools are going to suffer the most.”

    She and others suggested the district should pay the fee, or at least find a way for outside organizations to support the effort.

    District human resources director Mary Faulk, who is overseeing the change, said while the district would like to cover the fee, “we just can’t absorb the cost.”

    Last year the district processed 23,000 volunteer applications, from which about 10,000 were active in the schools, she said. Those were one-time background checks that did not cost anything, but also did not get regular updates if a person did something inappropriate afterward.

    To upgrade to the Level 2 screenings, she said, it would cost the district more than $1 million if it paid for all of them. It will pay about $100,000 annually for the monitoring fee, Faulk said.

    “We are looking at avenues to provide financial assistance,” she added.

    For some people, though, the issue was not the money. It was the principle.

    “It’s asking people to give of their time, and then, by the way, you have to pay $41,” said Kim Theurer, the district’s 2023-24 teacher of the year, who recently retired.

    Parker Judd, a 2021 graduate of Hudson High, said the change would prompt him to stop volunteering as a junior varsity cheerleading coach at the school. A former cheerleader, he said he wanted to give back to the program, helping other students learn and grow in a safe space.

    “I already give all of my time and money back to the kids and now the district is asking for more? And then they have the audacity to say that ‘We truly appreciate the hours you have served in our schools and the value you add to the educational experience for our students,’” Judd said via email. “It’s a slap in the face to me.”

    Other school districts in the area do not do things the same way.

    The Hernando County district asks volunteers to pay $9.95 for a Level 1 clearance, with fingerprints required for Level 2 if they wish, spokesperson Karen Jordan said. The Pinellas County district does not charge for the Level 1 check, but does have volunteers pay a fingerprinting vendor if they want to have a Level 2 clearance for more direct interaction with students.

    The cost in Pinellas ranges from $43.50 to $50, based on the vendor used.

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