Romano: Until the Parkland shooting, lawmakers ignored requests for school safety funds

Published February 20 2018

His words and his pleas are similar to what we’ve heard from others in recent days.

Kids deserve to feel safe when they walk into a classroom in Florida. More security is needed. More boots on the ground would be helpful. Mostly, more money must be devoted to safety.

There’s just one difference:

Bill Lee was aiming this message at the Florida Legislature two weeks before the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And it’s a message the Legislature has ignored for years and years.

Lee, the president of the Florida Association of School Administrators, or FASA, now regrets some of the language he used in an op-ed published in several state newspapers in early February.

He began by suggesting further school violence was an inevitability, a prediction that elicits far greater sorrow than vindication in the wake of 17 murders.

"I used some strong words," Lee said Monday, "and that doesn’t leave me with a good feeling."

Just to be clear, Lee has no reason for remorse.

Harsh words are apparently necessary when it comes to the Florida Legislature. Lawmakers certainly haven’t responded to polite requests when it comes to school safety.

Here is the reality:

Back in the pre-recession days of more than a decade ago, the school safety portion of the education budget was slightly more than $75 million annually. It dropped to $67 million in Charlie Crist’s final year as governor, and then dropped to $64.5 million in Rick Scott’s first budget of 2011-12.

That number has remained stuck at $64.5 million ever since. This is despite the Department of Education requesting increases every year. This is despite Scott making campaign pledges to increase school safety funds in 2014. This is despite law enforcement officials and school districts around the state publicly acknowledging they do not have the funds to provide adequate security on campuses.

When FASA executive director Juhan Mixon appeared before the Board of Education last summer, he said the $75 million budget from 15 years ago would need to be $112 million just to keep pace with inflation and the growing student population.

Instead, the 67 school districts are still divvying up $64.5 million.

Not surprisingly, the House of Representatives, with its ideological mission to strip money from the public school system, has been the biggest stumbling block.

For the past couple of years, Scott has suggested increasing the safe schools allocation, and the Senate’s early recommendation for the 2018-19 academic year included a $13.7 million increase.

Yet, up until last week, the House proposal remained stagnant.

Now, in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and other legislators are suddenly interested in increasing the budget for school safety.

So what is the money needed for?

You name it.

With the cost of school resource officers (i.e. cops on campus) eating up more than 80 percent of the state allocation, most districts are struggling to come up with money for cameras, automatic locking doors, mental health counselors, fencing, bulletproof windows and social media monitors.

And some high schools — including Marjory Stoneman Douglas — are the size of small colleges with several thousand students, which makes it impossible to patrol with just one resource officer.

And while it takes a mass shooting to get everyone’s attention, Lee said the safety issue is present every single day at nearly every single school.

It’s not just weapons or cafeteria fights, but also students with mental health issues and no counselors qualified to deal with them on campus.

"The event last week was horrific, and we need to address those types of problems," Lee said. "But all you have to do is look at social media, and look at the number of suicide attempts and kids being Baker Acted to realize how staggering this problem is. We are losing these kids one at a time, and when you add it all up, I promise you it will be a lot more than just 17 lives."