The new struggle for Florida schools: Paying for education — and security

Hillsborough County School Officer Obed Gerena stands in front of Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa in 2012. Florida lawmakers now are requiring school districts to put some kind of security officer on every campus, but district leaders say the state didn't set aside enough money to accomplish the task. In recent days, they've started to look at possible cuts to education budgets. [SKIP O'ROURKE  | Times]
Hillsborough County School Officer Obed Gerena stands in front of Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa in 2012. Florida lawmakers now are requiring school districts to put some kind of security officer on every campus, but district leaders say the state didn't set aside enough money to accomplish the task. In recent days, they've started to look at possible cuts to education budgets. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published March 23
Updated March 23

Florida school district leaders are faced with a school security dilemma.

Lawmakers are requiring them to add armed safety officers or "guardians" to every elementary, middle and high school campus, and they set aside $170 million for the task. But that wonít come close to projected costs.

The gap ó as little as $500,000 in some counties, more than $10 million in others ó is leading to some potentially unpleasant choices. Thatís because school board members also face other budget demands, such as a state-mandated increase in employee retirement contributions, paired with a tiny rise in revenue for general operations, if not a decrease.

Theyíre also required to maintain a 3 percent reserve account, or be hit with new and tougher penalties the Legislature imposed in its recent session.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa Bay needs millions to pay for school security law

"Itís a bigger picture than just SROs," noted Pinellas County School Board chairwoman Rene Flowers, referring to the ranks of school resource officers that soon will be expanded.

Few officials want to cut academic programs or services to make ends meet with the security needs.

Miami-Dade County leaders, for instance, said they will work with law enforcement and other government entities to leverage the added $10 million in safe schools funds they received. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced this week his district would add 100 unarmed security guards and 20 armed officers to bolster campus protection.

The district wonít incur any deficit, though, spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said, as it "will not exceed the $10 million in new funding for SROs that the state provided."

Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Sally Harris expressed admiration for that position. By spending only what they can, she said, districts would send a clear message to lawmakers who forced them into a corner.

The Legislature had not increased school safety spending from $64.5 million since 2011-12, even as enrollment rose statewide by nearly 200,000 children. It was not poised to do so for 2018-19, either, until the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

But the real world demands that districts do more to protect schools, Harris noted, and no one will call one campus more deserving than another.

"I have to say, we are doing everything we can to live within our means and still provide a positive education for our children," Harris said. "There are going to have to be some more cuts. And itís going to start now, I think, affecting our children."

She mentioned class size adjustments as one potential area for savings, saying courses with smaller numbers might have to be combined or eliminated to reduce staff costs. Job reductions also could emerge, as a way to help the district pay for security alongside rising insurance premiums and utility bills, among other inescapable added expenses.

Superintendents from several districts said they are exploring every option to scale back spending and maximize other resources, so they can keep up with the higher costs of business while also adding security ó if they can find enough trained people to take the positions.

A few in smaller counties, such as Hamilton and Union, said they donít anticipate financial troubles because of the new security mandates.

Flowers said cuts are a last resort for Pinellas schools.

"Thereís only so much toilet paper, paper towels and crayons you can cut," she said, suggesting a tax referendum might be a better way to pay for the added officers.

"The state never gives us enough money to do what we have to do," said Pasco County School Board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong. "Thatís why itís important to us as a community to decide what our priorities are."

She agreed that the districts must follow the law, and also meet what local residents expect. Those conversations will take place in the coming months, as school boards create budgets for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Seminole County superintendent Walt Griffin is one of a few district leaders who can offer some advice. His board worked with law enforcement to add resource officers to every school in the county nearly three years ago.

He acknowledged thereís no easy fix. But it can work, Griffin said.

One key is coordination, he said. In Seminole, law enforcement pays half the cost of the school officers, "which greatly reduces our burden," he said.

The SROs teach safety courses in the elementary schools, providing teachers with some time relief. A sheriffís captain also advises the superintendent on safety issues around the district.

Many counties already have begun such collaboration. Pinellas sheriff Bob Gualtieri, for one, has sent a letter to his County Commission asking for help to solve school security funding needs.

Others have not been as accommodating. Sarasotaís sheriff announced Thursday his office would stop sharing the cost of resource officers, leaving the school district with an unanticipated $750,000 funding hole to fill, the Herald-Tribune reported.

That amount was on top of a projected deficit of at least $300,000. Superintendent Todd Bowden said he also was looking at changing priorities in the districtís capital spending to make ends meet.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Gov. Rick Scott signs gun, school security legislation over NRA opposition

Even after working with law enforcement, the Seminole district still had to scale back some programs and eliminate some jobs, Griffin added. It was lucky, though, that its decision came at a time when enrollment growth provided added funding that the School Board could use to cover its share of the security costs.

Now, itís just a matter of maintaining rather than adding.

"It was a reprioritization of the dollars we have," Griffin said.

Thatís a tougher path for districts to follow in a year when the increase in unrestricted funding is 47 cents per student, and many districts saw their state revenue further reduced through a formula change aimed at helping the smaller ones.

But theyíre looking.

Pasco County officials, for instance, said they freed some discretionary funds within their safe schools budget to pay for some but not all of their needed officers. Theyíre still talking about other ideas.

Flowers, the Pinellas board chairwoman, had one thought for Gov. Scott and lawmakers: Allow districts that donít want to arm their employees to use their share of the $67 million "guardian" allocation to pay for law enforcement at schools.

Senate President Joe Negron has indicated that might be possible, but the time isnít yet ripe.

"Itís not that we donít want to do this," Flowers said of bolstering school security. "We just donít have the resources and, actually, the bodies arenít even available. We need to look at flexibility."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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