Reporter

Money for school safety is one of the biggest issues facing state lawmakers returning to Tallahassee in March for the 2019 legislative session.

School districts across Florida are seeking funding to pay for hardening measures and mental health training.

Education officials and law enforcement both also want more money for school resource officers (SROs), or armed cops assigned to protect students.

That’s because nearly a year ago, 17 people were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparking public outcry and a call for legislative action.

The result was a massive $400 million bill drafted and signed into law in three weeks called the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act.

It put sweeping mandates – some unfunded – into place across Florida. One provision requires every public and charter school in the state to have an SRO on campus – with two at every high school.

Schools and law enforcement agencies scrambled to get into compliance over the summer before the mandate took effect in August.

But at an average cost of $138,000 per officer (which includes training, salary and equipment), the new mandate has cost Osceola County $10 million, according to District Public Information Officer Dana Schafer.  

Osceola County Schools received $3.4 million from the state to pay its share of the $10 million total - an expense traditionally shared between districts and law enforcement.

But it wasn’t enough.

Superintendent Debra Pace told state lawmakers Jan. 17 that the district has been forced to invest $600,000 to pay SRO costs not covered by the safe school allocation.

“This is a significant challenge for our budget,” Pace said at the recent Osceola County Legislative Delegation meeting, where local leaders address major concerns with Florida lawmakers before they head to Tallahassee. “We ask for your continued focus on safe schools along with funding and support to fill those needs.”

Two new schools – Harmony Middle and NeoCity Academy – are set to open in the fall. When they do, two more SROs will need to be in place, Pace said.

Law enforcement agencies were hit even harder.

The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office and two police departments shouldered $6 million out of the $10 million local SRO expenses.

And unlike the school district, law enforcement did not receive a major state allocation in the bill to cover costs.

Sheriff Russ Gibson told lawmakers at the delegation that he can’t put a price on the safety of children, but urged them to find a way to provide funding for their new mandate each year.   

“I think it’s essential for the delegation when you’re in Tallahassee to work to find the monies to make this seemingly unfundable mandate funded,” Gibson said.

When the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act passed last year, it did not include any re-appropriations for the next year.

Lawmakers like State Rep. Mike La Rosa, State Rep. John Cortes and State Sen. Victor Torres will work with other legislators to decide how much to pay for school safety this year – and where the money will come from.

Other school districts, including Brevard, have also asked their representatives to sustain or increase safe school funding, according to the newspaper Florida Today.

The 2019 legislative session begins March 5.