RICHMOND -- The West Contra Costa school board Wednesday evening approved up to $50,000 annually to compensate local police for protecting Kensington Hilltop Elementary School after the district superintendent rescinded his recommendation that the board reject the proposal.

The three-year arrangement would make Kensington Hilltop, which serves one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the district, the only elementary school out of about 30 to have district-subsidized police protection of its campus.

The decision, passed by a 5-0 vote, ignored an initial staff recommendation to reject the proposal on the basis that agreeing to the request from the Kensington Police Protection and Community Services District to restore a subsidy that had lapsed for two decades "would set a precedent that could not be funded for all elementary schools."

During the meeting, district Superintendent Bruce Harter said he had changed his mind and recommended the board approve the subsidy.

School board President Charles Ramsey later said district staff had mistakenly assumed the police protection district was asking for an officer to be posted on the elementary school campus. He said a large portion of the $50,000 devoted to police services will be used to help cover the cost of protecting the elementary school's campus, which is school district property, from burglary and vandalism after school hours.

"We came to realize that if they didn't provide this service, we would have to call the sheriff," Ramsey said. "(The police protection district) is not currently required to respond to the school."

The police protection district has a police force of nine officers, maintains parks and recreation facilities and negotiates garbage collection service for the unincorporated community of about 5,000 residents.

In a letter to the school board, police district board member Tony Lloyd requested $10,000 annually for crossing guard services and $22,500 for police patrol coverage "for incidental dispatch to the school property."

At the school board meeting, Ramsey urged hiking that commitment to $50,000 annually to cover incidentals such as officer overtime and other unanticipated expenses.

In his letter, Lloyd said his agency has been covering the entire cost of the services, "which it must allocate as an upward pressure to its already challenged small budget."

"We would hope the board ... would reinstate the expense cost of these two line items in recognition of the strong support ... Kensington continues to show for many of the (school) board funding proposals," Lloyd wrote.

Kensington has traditionally voted heavily in favor of bond measures to build schools in the district. West Contra Costa is placing a $270 million school bond measure on the June ballot. If it passes, it would be the seventh such measure to repair and replace dilapidated schools since 1998.

Kensington Hilltop feeds into Portola Middle School in El Cerrito, which has a new campus under construction.

Portola, in turn, sends its graduates to El Cerrito High School, which opened its new campus in 2009, and construction on a new football stadium for the high school began earlier this year.

The district's about-face from the initial staff recommendation and a remark by Ramsey praising Kensington for its support of the school district at the ballot box raised questions of political payback from at least one observer.

"It sounded like the district was rewarding Kensington for this support," said longtime school board critic Giorgio Cosentino of Hercules in an email to Ramsey after the meeting. "That's not how it's supposed to be."