Why millions of dollars set aside to protect Florida schools is going untouched

Millions of dollars that could be spent keeping children safe isn’t doing its job.

The money, roughly $58 million, is sitting in Tallahassee because it can only be used for one thing: the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, which allows school districts to arm employees.

Aaron Feis was one of 17 students and staff killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February, and he was hailed a hero for putting himself in harm’s way to save students.

The Guardian Program was created as part of the $400 million Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act [SB 70266], which also requires an armed law enforcement officer or guardian in each school. The state assigned $67 million to be used solely for guardians.

The program allows certain employees with training, called Guardians, to carry guns on public school campuses. According to the Florida Department of Education, those eligible to be guardians include: administrators, support staff and professionals who do not work exclusively in classrooms. Teachers who exclusively perform classroom duties are not eligible, unless they are JROTC teachers, current members of armed services, or former law enforcement officers.

However, many counties – including Lee, Charlotte, and Collier – expressed concerns over arming school staff. Only 25 of the 67 Florida counties have opted to use the Guardian Program this year, including just one in Southwest Florida, Hendry County.

“Some districts want the guardian program and that’s fine, that’s good for them, but we just didn’t feel like it was good for us,” said Mike Riley with Charlotte County Schools. “It’s a different breed being like a SWAT team member and being an educator.”

Those that opted in only used about $9 million, leaving roughly $58 million up for grabs.

That didn’t sit well with Governor Rick Scott. In August, he sent letters to the Joint Legislative Budget Commission to move the remaining money so that districts could use it to hire more officers instead.

Both the governor and the Department of Education agreed when the Guardian Program was created that they’d like to move the funds if they went unused.

“We cannot let this money to go waste in Tallahassee,” Gov. Scott wrote.

Riley said his district would be love to see some extra cash, but Charlotte County already has an officer in every school. He said they would rather use it hire more guidance counselors and school psychiatrists.

“We’re just hoping that through strengthening the mental health of our children that that’s going to be an effective tool for us,” Riley said.

Lee County Schools chose officers over guardians too and wouldn’t turn away more funding. “We took a million dollars out of our own budget to supplement the SROs,” Rob Spicker with Lee County Schools said. “And if money comes back that’s one of the things it could perhaps do is backfill the budget or increase security.”

Spicker said that one million dollars came from their general fund because the Public Safety Act provided the district $3.6 million to put towards the cost of SROs, less than half of what it actually costs to have at least one officer in Lee County schools. He said the SRO program costs $9.2 million in total, and half of that cost is picked up by the local law enforcement and the other half by the the school district.

But a week after Gov. Scott’s request, Republican Senator Bill Galvano turned it down. He said, in part, moving the funds wouldn’t be so simple and the program needs time to grow.

This summer, Polk County opted in for the Guardian Program, requesting more than $1.5 million and used it to train guardians ahead of the 2019-2018 school year.

The Polk County School Board said they also weren’t comfortable arming teachers, so they did things a little differently.

Instead of using district employees already in place, Polk hired new people solely to be guardians. The county said hiring more school resource officers would cost three times more than it cost to hire guardians.

“We chose an option that fit within our budget,” Lynn Wilson, Polk County School Board member, said. “Something that we could work with in our budget and did not require us to hire teachers.”

The guardians were used to fill remaining elementary schools and adult learning centers, and meet the requirements from the Pubic Safety Act. All other public middle and high schools already had SROs.

Wilson called it the winning combination for them.

The budget commission hopes more counties will find ways to make guardians work – perhaps like Polk County did. While moving the money isn’t an option right now, the commission is open to reviewing school-safety amendments in the coming months. According to Gov. Scott, if the funds were to be freed up, Charlotte County could get $369,626, Lee could get $2,224,232, and Collier could receive $1,120,790.

Reporter:Sara Girard
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