Legislature failed to boost funding for school safety
Published: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 7:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 7:07 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Despite the talk of increasing school safety after the Connecticut elementary school shooting last December, Florida lawmakers left safety funding largely unchanged when they finished their annual session last week.
School safety funding in Florida at a glance
- School safety funding reached a peak of $75.6 million in 2007-08.
- Lawmakers sought to restore the funding this year, but settled on keeping the budget at its current level of $64.5 million, or about 15 percent less than the peak funding.
- Lawmakers provided an additional $1 million to the state Department of Education to develop a software program in the coming year that will allow each school district to assess security measures at each school.
The $74.5 billion budget bill that Gov. Rick Scott received on Thursday contains the same amount of school safety money - $64.5 million - that is in the current budget. Lawmakers did set aside an additional $1 million for a safety survey at each of Florida's schools, looking for ways to improve security.
Scott has until May 24 to act on the budget bill.
The Senate had pushed a plan to increase safety funding by shifting more than $11 million in federal money in the state budget to schools. But the shift ran into opposition in budget negotiations when law enforcement officials said putting the money into school safety would erode Florida's anti-terrorism efforts - another heightened concern following last month's Boston bombings.
In the end, lawmakers settled on keeping the school safety program at $64.5 million, about 15 percent less than the program had in 2007-08, when the safety budget peaked at $75.6 million before the recession.
The money is distributed to Florida's 67 school districts based on a formula that includes the local crime index as well as the number of enrolled students.
Under the new $1 million "safe schools security assessment" program, the state Department of Education in the coming year will negotiate a contract with a security consulting firm. The company will develop a safety assessment software program each district will use to measure security strengths and weaknesses at each school.
The assessment will look at number of factors, ranging from emergency preparedness to physical security features to security staffing at each school.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who leads the Senate budget subcommittee on education funding, originally pushed for the federal fund shift for the budget year that begins July 1. But he said even without the increase, he expects the safety assessment will provide a basis for next year's request.
"We tried but we weren't able to make that substantial increase," he said. "But I'm hoping that with the assessments, it will have a more direct impact with dollars and it will be easier to justify increases."
Galvano said he expects the DOE's assessment tool to be in place and generating data in time for next year's legislative session.
Galvano, who has three children in public schools, said there remains "a heightened level of awareness" in all the schools.
"The school districts are taking safety very seriously," Galvano said. "The dollars that have been going to school safety have been used for a variety of different programs or purposes within the districts. My belief is that given what has occurred in our recent history that there will be more of a focus of using those dollars for direct safety measures."
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former Leon County school superintendent who heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said student safety remains the "number one concern" for school officials.
"It would have been good to have $75 million," Montford said, adding he understood what happened in the negotiating process. "We simply couldn't get there."
But he said the superintendents are pleased that the districts will continue to receive the $64.5 million in safety funding - plus the $1 million assessment tool - which Montford described as "a good bit of money and we'll continue to spend it very wisely."
"That maintains where we are," Montford said, adding the money has been spent on things like training and equipment that will continue to provide security for the schools.
"In the next year, I'm confident we'll be looking at the next step in terms of assessing the safety of all of our institutions," Montford said. "That will be foremost in our minds for the coming year."
Lawmakers did not change the current system that allows each school district to design its safety programs, including the decision of whether to post law enforcement officers at each school and how to pay for them.
Under the current system, most high schools and many middle schools have safety officers, while the officers are much rarer at elementary schools. Some districts pay for the resource officers while others share the cost with law enforcement.
"That's a local decision," Montford said. "What happens in Miami-Dade County may not be needed in Franklin County. They know their communities certainly better than we know their communities in Tallahassee."
Posting the officers at all schools statewide would require millions of dollars more in funding.
Meanwhile, another approach to protecting students in classrooms also came up short in the 2013 session.
Bills filed by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, would have allowed designated school personnel - who would have to undergo training - to carry a gun on school campuses.
Steube's bill passed all its House committees but was never scheduled for a floor vote. The Senate bill never received a committee hearing.