By Rachel Christian
Local governments across Florida are scrambling to fill hundreds of school security positions by the August opening of the 2018-19 school year.
A bill requiring local districts to increase law enforcement at schools was introduced at the statehouse in late February, following a massive shooting that left 17 people dead in South Florida.
Known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act in memory of the Parkland school where the shooting took place, it requires local government to implement at least one school resource officer (SRO), security professional or armed marshal at every elementary and middle school, and one per every 1,000 students at each high school. The provision also applies to charter schools.
The $97 million measure was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, and the Osceola County School District is set to receive $3.4 million from it.
How will the county pay for SROs?
Now, as the state-mandated deadline looms, Osceola County leaders are wondering how they will pay what the state money does not cover.
“The state took a bold action and said ‘We’re going to have a school resource officer in every single school, it’s a great thing to do.’ Now I wish they would tell us how we’re going to pay for it,” said Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington at Monday’s board meeting.
Paying for SROs has always been a joint effort in Osceola County between the school district and law enforcement. The district pays $39,900 for each new SRO, and law enforcement picks up the rest.
The new state funds allow the school district to pay its share of the newly required SRO positions.
But no state money was allocated for law enforcement agencies to cover the rest.
The county submits its annual budget in September, and Arrington told fellow commissioners this budget cycle would be especially challenging.
To comply with the new law, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office must hire 33 new SROs, the St. Cloud Police Department plans to hire seven officers as well as a new supervisor, and the Kissimmee Police Department needs five SROs and a new sergeant.
Arrington said the question of finding and funding a minimum of 45 SROs in just over three months needs to be discussed with officials from law enforcement and the school district soon.
“This is a real conversation the state has dropped in our lap and has taken the credit for,” he said.
Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. said he’s spoken with the governor about allowing retired officers to come back as SROs and keep their pensions. Currently, law enforcement agents lose their pensions if they rejoin the force.
It would be a cheaper alternative, Hawkins said, also noting he isn’t sure about the legal details.
Law enforcement recruiting challenges
SROs are one of the fastest growing sectors in law enforcement nationwide. The trend holds true in Osceola County, too.
“I definitely think that’s true, especially with this new state mandate,” said Maj. Jacob Ruiz, public information officer for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office. “New schools opening in the county has become an almost annual thing. And each time one opens, you need another SRO.”
Ruiz said staffing the positions can be challenging in a rapidly growing county that also needs cops and deputies on the street to combat everyday crime.
Attracting new recruits became a goal at the Sheriff’s Office long before Parkland. In June, Sheriff Russ Gibson created a separate recruiting unit to find both experienced officers and young adults interested in the profession.
Ruiz said the recruiting unit has expanded, but factors like anti-law enforcement sentiment and competition from other state agencies can make the effort difficult.
He did not say how much it might cost the sheriff’s office to pay its share of 33 SROs. Ruiz said the department is currently working on its annual budget proposal, which it will submit to the county soon.
A statewide struggle
Osceola isn’t the only Florida county grappling with this issue.
In Pinellas and Manatee counties, commissioners have refused to put more money into placing resource officers at schools, while the Lee County school district says it needs an additional $4 million to meet the state’s new security demands.
Meanwhile, Clay and Brevard counties are pursuing armed guards and “security specialists” to comply with the mandate.
A recent Florida Department of Education survey shows school districts statewide will need about 1,550 more officers to meet the law’s requirements for one in every school. That would cost an estimated total of $115 million, according to the department.