Gov. Rick Scott announced Tuesday evening that unused money in the program to arm school staff — $58 million — should soon be redirected to help school districts with other school safety measures, like hiring more officers for school campuses.
The move was not a surprise, as it was something both legislative leaders and Scott had promised to do as the session came to an end in March, after the governor signed SB 7026, the bill that created these new pots of money after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.
At the time, many of the state’s sheriffs had said there was not enough money to hire sworn campus police officers, known as school resource officers (SROs). Meanwhile, they said, there was too much money for the program to arm school staff, called the “guardian” program, and named after Aaron Feis, the slain Stoneman Douglas coach.
So far, the “guardian” program statewide has only used $9 million of the $67 million allocated for that purpose, though that number is expected to climb a little higher as districts are still joining the program. School “guardians” must undergo 132 hours of training to be allowed to carry a gun on campus.
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Scott’s announcement was a recommendation. The actual authority to move the funding around lies with the Legislative Budget Commission, which will meet next month.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho commended the announcement. Because the funding will be distributed to districts based on their enrollment, his district will receive the most funding from this shift — more than $8 million, he estimated. That would nearly double what Miami-Dade already received for safe schools funding this year.
“It is redirecting funds in a way school systems can actually use,” Carvalho said Tuesday, indicating his district will hire more SROs. “This will go a long way in further solidifying the plan that we put into motion.”
After initially balking at the idea they would arm school staff, several major districts, like Hillsborough, have reversed course and added “guardians” to their school safety plan. Some, rather than arm existing school staff, used the guardian program to hire new security officers employed by the district, to meet the post-Parkland state requirement that every school have an armed guard on campus. Broward, Pinellas and Pasco districts also use a mix of both “guardians” and SROs.
Miami-Dade has been one of the few big, urban districts that opted instead to protect campuses with only sworn law enforcement officers, who are much more expensive than the trained “guardians.”
According to the language of the proposal to be submitted to the budget commission, “the balance that remains … will be utilized to hire additional school officers.” If the commission approves this language, the funds will be restricted only for the purpose of hiring personnel, and won’t be available to schools for other safety purposes like installing metal detectors or steel doors.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission created by SB 7026, said he was thankful the state followed through on its commitment to move this money around.
“Things don’t always move this fast when you talk about government action, and the fact they’re already moving on it is a positive sign,” he said.
However, Gualtieri cautioned that this means sheriff’s offices are now going to be hiring law enforcement officers for schools with funding that is not recurring. Unlike the pot of money originally dedicated to hiring more SROs, this $58 million is not guaranteed each year by the new law, meaning next year’s funding is up to next year’s Legislature.
“I think everyone needs to be careful about that. Let’s say you hire 20 SROs. How are you going to pay for them next year?” the sheriff said. “I don’t think it warrants any alarms, but it warrants eyes open and being aware this is a hole that needs to be filled one way or another or they’re going to come up short.”
Still, Carvalho said he welcomes the funding, adding that this is what the district advocated. He said he hopes the Legislature will recognize that since “the need is recurring,” the funding should be repeatedly allocated, too.