Florida Lawmakers Confront Cost of Improving School Safety

By | March 14, 2013

The mass school shooting in Connecticut led officials to question if more should be done to beef up security in Florida’s public classrooms. Three months later, lawmakers are still grappling with how to respond, especially since one solution — placing a uniformed officer in every school — remains extremely expensive.

“I don’t know if we can have that as a realistic goal in the state budget,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and the chairman of the Senate committee that will draw up the state’s education budget.

Some bills are moving through the Florida Legislature, but it’s unclear what will actually pass during the 60-day annual session.

A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a measure (SB 514) that would allow local governments to ask voters if they want to pay more money to help beef up school security and provide mental health referral services. The extra money would come from an increase in local property taxes.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said schools used to have resource officers but that budget cuts in the last decade have forced many to cut back on the number of police patrolling schools. She stressed that it would be up to individual counties to decide whether to raise taxes for the effort.

“It’s not a mandate, it’s up to voters,” Sobel said.

But while the bill made it through the Senate Education Committee by a 7-1 vote, it was clear that some Republicans did not agree with this approach. They said it would create an extra layer of government. The House version of the bill has yet to be heard.

Most resource officers are stationed at high schools and middle schools. Few are in elementary schools such as the one in Newtown, Conn., where a shooter killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

Facing a series of revenue shortfalls, the state has cut its own spending for school safety programs by 15 percent over the past five years. It currently allocates $64.5 million to Florida schools while the federal government chips in only $1.25 million.

School districts in the state spend 65 percent of their safety funding, or $42.2 million, on school resource officers. The rest is spent on items such as security cameras and fences. Many systems also spend local dollars to keep officers in their schools and most split the total 50/50 with law enforcement agencies although some districts contribute larger percentages.

A survey of districts estimated it would cost more than $100 million to place resource officers in every school. Gov. Rick Scott recommended that the state boost its school safety funding by $10 million.

Galvano said he wants to spend at least $1 million in the coming year to do a security assessment on every school in the state. But he said it would not be likely to be put “boots on the ground” in every school.

The focus this session isn’t just on school resources officers. There are also measures to give principals the ability to discipline students who engage in online or cyber-bulling, as well as a bill that would allow private schools to get notified in the event of an emergency at a public school.

House Speaker Will Weatherford contended that lawmakers will wind up doing something this year.

“I think we always want to look for ways to make our schools safer. I think that’s always going to be a priority of this Legislature,” Weatherford said. “It’s a tragedy what took place in Newtown. We should be looking at different ways to protect our children.”

Topics Legislation Florida

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