The one high school in Washington County that doesn't employ an armed law enforcement officer is saving a sum of money that's somewhat equivalent to a teacher's salary.

Whether that's good or bad remains a matter of opinion in Mahtomedi, where the 1,200-student high school no longer has a contract with the Washington County Sheriff's Office for a full-time deputy. Instead, the district has hired an unarmed security guard to walk the halls and watch doors.

Mahtomedi High School is now the only secondary school in Washington County that doesn't contract for police protection. City police departments provide resource officers for the others.

"It's been working quite well. We have no issues or concerns," said Superintendent Mark Larson. "It does give me pause. The fear you have, what can happen with children, is always something you worry about."

Hiring a guard from American Security, combined with savings from a parking lot attendant job, will save the school district about $41,000 this year. The district paid $57,298.70 for the sheriff's deputy in 2011-12, compared with $34,400 for the security guard this year.

The decision came during a round of budget cuts totaling $253,989 that the school board approved in May.

In the weeks after the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut, schools nationwide have begun re-evaluating their security, exploring whether licensed officers trained with firearms should be present to confront intruders.

Sheriff Bill Hutton said last week he's disappointed with the decision, because school security is a broader issue than putting a gun at the door. The Mahtomedi deputy, Hutton said, helped prevent crime in the city because she could relay information gathered in the school to officers on the street about fights and other trouble about to occur.

"They're not just standing around in a uniform with a gun. They're making themselves available at many different levels," Hutton said of school resource officers. "The population of that school nine hours a day is greater than most of the small cities in greater Minnesota. They are the connection between the school and the community and many other groups, including the Sheriff's Office."

Ken Trump, a national school security consultant, said more high schools have hired armed law enforcement officers since the slaughter of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

"The idea that we haven't had a lot of problems here, you could apply that rationale anyplace, from Columbine to Sandy Hook," he said. "The golden rule of private security is you get what you pay for. If you save a buck as a school district by lowering your standard, it's a save now pay later standard."

American Security didn't respond to an interview request.

School districts without licensed, trained police officers lose their bridge to local departments and face potential liability if something goes wrong, Trump said.

Margie Grilley, a Mahtomedi parent, said she hasn't heard people talking about the change in security. "I'm not sure people are really aware," she said. "It's one of those things that happened quietly."

Recent remodeling at Mahtomedi High School moved the main office nearer the front door, routing visitors to a front counter where they have to register before receiving bright yellow name tags. Other security measures involved constructing a new central locker bay -- eliminating scattered lockers -- and banning backpacks in classrooms.

"We're a small school. Everybody knows everybody," said Grilley, co-chairperson of the Mahtomedi Parent Communication Network. "I don't know if it would feel different to have an armed officer. Our school is safe because the school administration and staff know who the kids are."

In Cottage Grove, Peter Koerner was Park High School's first police officer earlier in his career. In a recent interview, he defended the importance of police in schools.

"We are an armed police officer in a building where there's so much more that goes along with that, so many benefits," said Koerner, now a captain. Police officers help with investigations, social services, drug problems and fights, he said. They also work with school officials on crisis plans and safety concerns and coordinate that information with the police department.

"If you had private security that is walking the hall, I don't know how effective that would be," he said. "You miss that information and relation building."

Another perspective comes from David Bennett, a retired St. Paul school superintendent and a board member of the Mahtomedi Area Education Foundation. In the 1970s, he introduced armed officers to schools in Milwaukee to head off crime.

"We found ourselves in a situation of having to call the police on almost a routine basis in certain schools," Bennett said, explaining that police officers who work in schools can ferret out crimes.

Over 30 years, Bennett said, he supervised 250 schools and dealt with many children being injured and killed. But all those deaths occurred outside the school and no armed officer inside a school could have prevented them, he said.

Bennett said he doesn't fault Mahtomedi High School staff and the school board for ending the tenure of an armed officer because he, too, has had to wrestle with tough budget decisions.

"This is just a reality of the world we live in," he said.

Larson described the savings as somewhat equaling the cost of a teacher. The Mahtomedi School District will re-evaluate the decision but answers don't come easy in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, he said. He also said he received several inquiries from parents about security after the shootings.

"There's a real frustration with, 'How do you combat evil like that?' " Larson said. "People are so heroic, miraculously so. Everyone hopes that they could react like those teachers did."

Deputies patrolling the cities of Mahtomedi and Grant will respond to any trouble at the high school, Hutton said, although communication goes only one way because his department can't feed inside intelligence and tips to the security guard.

"We can't share information with the security people. They're non-licensed; it just can't happen," said Hutton, who learned from a weekly newspaper that the school district ended the contract. "School resource officers are well-trained police officers. It's just one of those things we didn't expect."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles