TEMPLE TERRACE — A town hall meeting intended to discuss the Hillsborough School District's ongoing financial challenges evolved into a forum on school safety Wednesday night at Greco Middle School.
The gathering drew citizens, parents and teachers concerned about security in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting, as well as the continuing salary impasse between the district and teachers.
School Board member April Griffin said safety has been a district priority since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, and noted the district spent $5.5 million to harden local schools after Sandy Hook.
The next step is preparing both teachers and students for active-shooter scenarios with training, lock-down drills and hardening schools at every level.
John Newman, director of security for the district, said 9,000 employees have gone through training sessions and law enforcement partners and school security officers are on site at elementary, middle and high schools. Some parents, however, want a level of assurance the district can't provide, Newman said.
A few parents criticized the board's decision to end its zero tolerance discipline policy and asked how the district was planning to keep their children safe.
Others called for technology that allows for a new alarm to piggy-back off a school's current fire alarm systems, saying this would ensure that everyone on campus would hear the alarm and know there was an active shooter.
Newman said such changes hinge on funding. The district, already beset by financial woes, has a $12 million deficit in security costs. Complying with the new state law could increase that deficit to $16 million.
As for finances, education advocate Melissa Erickson, who runs the Alliance for Public Schools, asked that the School Board step back from pushing a tax referendum and allow the community to stand up and push it.
"Every other large community in the state has done that," Erickson said. "I don't know exactly what it's going to look like, but I'm going to work over the next few weeks to get a referendum on the August ballot."
Accountability remains an issue, with district critics contending there is too much waste.
Chief business officer Gretchen Saunders reviewed the district's financial status at the meeting. She said the school system basically lived "beyond its means" for years and is now trying to revert to more fiscally sound practices.
Saunders pointed out recent cuts to busing and energy use.
Some parents responded by noting that while cuts are being made that take away from students, the School Board continues to overspend in other areas, leading to mistrust in the community.
The town hall is the first in a series scheduled for the district.
Contact Jennifer Lima at firstname.lastname@example.org.