PT 1.jpg

Cadet Michelle Ortiz carries a fire hose while flipping over a truck tire Monday afternoon, May 10, outside of the Withlacoochee Technical College in Inverness during a relay race between cadets of the Citrus County Public Safety Training Center's Florida Law Enforcement Academy at WTC. To streamline oversight over the training center, the Citrus County School District will be staffing its director and law enforcement coordinator positions, roles filled by the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

It doesn’t really matter for Sgt. Juan Santiago who’s in charge of Citrus County’s police academy, whether it’s the county school system or sheriff’s office.

Sgt. Juan Santiago MUG

Sgt. Juan Santiago, coordinator of the Florida Law Enforcement Academy at the Citrus County Public Safety Training Center at the Withlacoochee Technical College in Inverness.

“My job is really to serve these recruits and get them a job anywhere I can,” said the coordinator of the Florida Law Enforcement Academy at Withlacoochee Technical College (WTC). “I’m here to serve them and help them be successful in whatever they do.”

Get more from the Citrus County Chronicle

Santiago saw another of his cadet contingents — a group of 21 — graduate Wednesday, May 12, from the Citrus County Public Safety Training Center at the technical college in Inverness.

Citrus County Public Safety Training Center Logo

Badges of the law enforcement and corrections academies that make up the Citrus County Public Safety Training Center at the Withlacoochee Technical College in Inverness.

With 770 hours of Florida Department of Law Enforcement class and coursework under their utility belts, the state-certified law enforcers are ready to protect and serve.

Leadership within the training center has shifted over the year toward the school district in an effort to better maintain responsibility, ending roughly 10 years of oversight by the sheriff’s office.

PT 2.jpg

Cadet Joshua Bondulich flips a truck tire all while securing a fire hose on his shoulder as he runs a relay race Monday, May 10, during a course of the Citrus County Public Safety Training Center's Florida Law Enforcement Academy at the Withlacoochee Technical College in Inverness.

There are four managerial positions within the training center: a director, an administrative assistant, a coordinator for the law enforcement academy and a coordinator for the corrections academy. 

An agreement required the school district to staff the corrections coordinator and administrative assistant, while the sheriff’s office had to employ the center’s director and law enforcement coordinator. 

Sam Himmel mug

Sandra "Sam" Himmel.

In a Jan. 28 letter, School Superintendent Sandra “Sam” Himmel gave Sheriff Mike Prendergast a notice to end the agreement for the sheriff’s office to man the director position with a captain.

Dave Vincent, the school district’s police chief and school safety specialist, then took over the director’s role — a position he had held for three years while a sheriff’s office captain himself.

Citrus County School District Police Chief Dave Vincent

Citrus County School District Police Chief Dave Vincent

Vincent told the Chronicle the school district wanted to be held accountable for overseeing the training center and its instructors, adding the district “saw some issues happening there, and some of the quality of things at the academy that were a little bit concerning.”

“If there was ever any problems, they weren’t our employee to address performance issues with,” he said. “When you have your own employees, you handle disciplinary and corrective actions consistently; it was kind of hard to do that when you had two bosses.”

Sheriff Mike Prendergast MUG

Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast

Prendergast responded to Himmel’s letter Feb. 10 with a notice of his agency’s intent to stop providing a coordinator for the training center’s law enforcement academy, held by Santiago.

Vincent said the school district wanted to just address the director position, and leave the sheriff in control of coordinating the law enforcement academy.

Sgt. Lee Carey, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told the Chronicle the sheriff’s decision was based on wanting to have the training center led by one agency.

PT 3.jpg

Cadet Kyle Lane sprints Monday, May 10, as he drags a fire hose during a relay race during physical training of the Citrus County Public Safety Training Center's Florida Law Enforcement Academy at the Withlacoochee Technical College in Inverness.

“It is better to have streamlined supervision amongst one entity instead of two,” he said. “The relationship between the school (district) and the sheriff’s office remains the same. We partner in the goal of providing the highest level of public safety to the community.”

Vincent said the school district and training center will also keep pushing out top-notch recruits for the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies to consider hiring.

On average, depending on demand and interest, between 50 and 60 cadets a year go through the correction academy and law enforcement academy, Vincent said.

“We’ve always had a good product here at this academy, and I just hope, being back involved, that it continues,” Vincent said, “and that we don’t just put out a good product for our community, but for all the communities that surrounds us.”

Santiago, a U.S. Army veteran, is also a product of the training center, becoming a state corrections officer in 1996 for a prison in Sumter County before joining the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office in 2004.

He took his scheduled retirement from the sheriff’s office in April before the school district rehired him back to do the same job.

PT 4.jpg

Cadet Daniel Rodriguez strains while pulling a weighted sled Monday, May 10, during a physical training course outside of the Withlacoochee Technical College for the Citrus County Public Safety Training Center's Florida Law Enforcement Academy.

Sgt. Dennis “Richie” Cunningham was also hired by the school district April 1 as its latest corrections academy coordinator.

Santiago said he’s “just blessed” to keep doing what he’s been doing since 2016.

“I really would like to take my training and experience, and foster the new generation of law enforcement officers that’s going to be taking my place,” he said. “What greater honor can I have to train these men and women."

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916,  bthompson@chronicleonline.com or visit tinyurl.com/yxn2ahso to see more of his stories.