Scott delivered remarks prior to signing the bill, highlighting its funding for mental health and saying that funding for a program to arm school staff could be diverted to hire more police.
We now can see the trap that the Florida Legislature set for school districts.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre, even legislators with A+ ratings from the National Rifle Association knew that they had to do something. They raised the age to purchase a firearm, imposed a three-day waiting period and banned bump stocks. Their action drew a lawsuit from the NRA. Lobbyist Marion Hammer fumed that the Legislature “got overtaken by events.”
But legislators also had to address school safety. So they approved $99 million — statewide — for measures to make schools more secure. They approved $98 million — statewide — for added campus police officers. Then they set the trap by requiring that districts have at least one officer at every school.
In Palm Beach County, which has a school police department, that leaves the district short 75 elementary schools. Officers cover all high schools and middle schools. In Broward, which contracts for school law enforcement with the sheriff’s office and police departments, the district is 35 schools short.
With the new school year starting in 10 weeks, there’s a scramble to work out deals under which both districts can comply with the law. The issue, of course, is money. That’s where the trap gets tighter.
First, legislators shorted school districts statewide on money for safety. Then they approved almost no additional money for academics. Statewide, the education budget increase aside from security averaged 47 cents per student.
A report released Monday by a school safety task force commissioned by the Broward League of Cities finds at least 100 areas in need of improvement.
Legislators then further penalized Broward and Palm Beach counties. At the request of a state senator from Northeast Florida whose district includes rural areas, the Legislature shifted $158 million from urban areas to small counties. Broward and Palm Beach thus will go into next year with less money overall for teachers and students unless there’s new revenue.
So the districts can’t just shift operating expenses to meet the safety requirement. They don’t want to raid their reserves, as some legislators blithely suggest. Counties and cities are preparing their own budgets and worrying about new costs for school police officers.
Meanwhile, legislators congratulate themselves for their response to the Stoneman Douglas massacre. Gov. Rick Scott touts “record” spending on education, which is false. Adjusted for inflation, Florida has fallen behind on per-pupil spending. Adjusted for reality, schools are worse off after the shooting because of Scott and the Legislature.
Still, parents will expect to know that an officer is on campus. So the Palm Beach County School District is working out agreements with cities to use officers on an overtime basis until the district’s department can hire enough of its own. The district first met with the sheriff’s office, but the two agencies were unable to work out a proposal.
Chief Operating Officer Wanda Paul praised the 11 “really incredible” cities that have been filling the gap since the shooting on their own dime. They have not charged the district for use of the officers’ vehicles. “They have exceeded our expectations.”
Under the formal agreements, said Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke, the district will reimburse cities for part of the cost. The rate will be based on salaries — likely a department’s middle range — and on benefits. “We want to be nimble enough,” Burke said, “to shift when our own department is staffed up.”
Reaching that point, however, will take more than money. In Palm Beach and Broward, it will take time to interview and hire qualified officers. Current officers may retire or go on leave. “It will be,” Paul understated, “a busy few months.”
Obviously, everyone wants schools to be safer. The argument comes over who will pay for it.
A Broward task force this week released a report that issued many recommendations. Among them: metal detectors, bulletproof glass and single entrances. Starting a school police department could cost $50 million, so nothing will happen on that front.
No cost estimates or sources of money come with the other safety recommendations. There’s a line about lobbying the state for money. Good luck with that. Instead, Broward and Palm Beach may ask voters to approve dedicated tax increases.
And the trap snaps shut. Tallahassee declares a priority — complete with a bill-signing ceremony featuring Stoneman Douglas families — but offers chump change. Something as important as school safety thus becomes another unfunded mandate from the state. The real priority was election-year politics.
Randy Schultz’s email address is email@example.com.