Gov. Rick Scott’s call for the release of $58 million to beef up school safety appears to be falling on the deaf ears of one incoming legislative leader.
Meanwhile, some school districts are feeling the crunch.
“It leaves us where we were at the end of legislative session; we’re going to be about $300,000 to $400,000 short from what was allocated to take the armed security through the school year,” said Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas.
Escambia is among districts opting to hire off-duty officers for its 32 elementary schools instead of guardians. Full-time school resource officers work at the district’s middle and high schools.
“When you compare that with seven high schools and nine middle schools, you can see the problem,” Thomas says. “There’s just such volume at the elementary level; to have school resource officers at all 32 elementary schools, we would be millions [of dollars] short. Just wouldn’t be practical or efficient for us to go that route.”
Public school districts in Florida – including Escambia County -- have been struggling to come up with enough money to pay for the officers.
“The bill’s coming, so you have to be able to pay it,” Thomas said. “What we did last year was took some funds not spent in the previous year and rolled it forward to cover it. But that is not a sustainable position to be in for the future.”
Last month the Governor asked lawmakers to fund more officers on campus, using money from the state’s guardian program. But incoming Senate President Bill Galvano refused, saying the program is still evolving, and that more districts may opt into it. Opting out of that program -- for now -- is the Santa Rosa County District and its 34 campuses.
“Our first impetus is to put a school resource officer on every campus, and we’re doing pretty good work to that effect,” says Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick. “We feel like we’ll have a trained SRO on every campus by the end of this year, and maybe even earlier than that.”
Besides the brick-and-mortar buildings, Wyrosdick says the Legislature also mandates all school-related activities be covered by school resource officers.
“We’ve always done that with athletics, but now with an open house, or we have a parent engagement meeting we’re now employing resource officers or [other] officers to be on campus for that event,” says Wyrosdick. “Any event where there’s a gather of people on campuses could – and should – be monitored by some type of resource officer.”
With moving the guardian program funding blocked at the Statehouse, Santa Rosa has had to move four million dollars from hiring teachers and buying classroom supplies to the resource officer program.
“I think very clearly this has become much more of a political decision, than a [sic] economic or a school safety one, as we look at both the governor’s race and the legislative race,” Wyrosdick says. “I don’t get involved with much of that, but I do sense that’s the case right now.”
“It’s a no-brainer for us; if you want to make schools safe you need to provide the appropriate resources to do so.”
The difference between an SRO and a guardian, is that a guardian is a school employee who takes on the job of security officer. They are armed, after going through an extensive training program – but do not have arrest power. But Escambia County’s Malcolm Thomas says SROs -- law enforcement personnel -- are more high-profile.
“They park their squad car in front of the school; and that in itself can telegraph a message to the community and anybody thinking of doing something on campus,” said Thomas. “It says ‘there’s a police officer on this site.’ They have arrest power; they could actually deal with a situation without having to call 9-1-1.”
Whether or not the $58 million eventually is released to counties that don’t use guardians is not the point, says Thomas. The main issue going into the 2019 legislative session will be to build on what’s already been accomplished.
“The steps [the Legislature] made last year, we think they were positive in terms of providing funding for security, armed security and mental health,” said Thomas. “But you’ve got to sustain that; you can’t just start it, and you can’t just make requirements and think that somehow districts have to find money that was not provided for that purpose.”
A school resource officer can cost up to $100,000 a year in salary and benefits, compared to between $30,000 and $50,000 for guardians. A number of rural districts with limited resources give $500 stipends to both groups.