- 2013 - January - 17th -

School police officer funding draws attention

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

In the wake of the December school shootings in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers in Florida appear to be moving toward increasing school-safety spending and changing the way local law enforcement officers posted at schools are funded.

The moves come after years of budget cuts have taken their toll on local sheriff's offices and left schools to fund the lion's share of costs for "school resources officers" — about 77 percent of the funding in the 2010-11 school year, according to a presentation Wednesday to the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee. About 15 percent of the bill was handled by sheriff's departments.

Schools spent $42.3 million on school resources officers that year.

"I'm surprised that only 15 percent is coming from the county sheriff's department," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "I thought it would be more like 50-50."

Currently, the amount of funding varies from district to district. In some, the sheriff's department does pick up a larger share or even all of the costs. But in other counties, school districts foot all of the bill. Sen. Bill Galvano, who chairs the committee, said the panel might look to address the funding sources for those officers.

"What I'm starting to see is a desire for some uniformity in how we accomplish that, and a uniformity in how we predict the cost," said Galvano (R-Bradenton). "And once that's figured out, then of course, the budget's going to have to respond. I would suspect that you'll see more funding in the area of safety and security."

Galvano said lawmakers also were likely to try to improve schools' communications technology.

Several district leaders have also expressed an interest in "hardening" schools against potential shooters by installing fences or limiting the number of places members of the public can enter a school. But Galvano suggested that construction changes might be difficult to address at the state level given the individualized nature of the issues facing schools.

Much of the attention over two days of hearings, though, has begun to center on whether and how to increase the number of armed school resource officers at public schools.

But not all schools want to proceed in that direction. Robert Moll, deputy superintendent for Volusia County schools, said elementary school principals in his county don't want resource officers at their buildings.

"They just don't want that ambience in an elementary school," he said.

Some lawmakers are encouraging a look at other preventative measures.

"If we had more guidance counselors, we might need less grief counselors," said Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice). Detert has sponsored a bill that would require schools to meet a certain ratio of guidance counselors to students, depending on the grade level.

The push for school safety also could recast the budget for the state Department of Education. Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) questioned the agency's request because it doesn't anticipate a significant increase in safety funding.

"To me, this is not your final answer," Thrasher said. "I hope it's not, because there are some holes in it."

Department officials noted that they were simply presenting the official request of the Florida Board of Education, which voted on the recommendations before the Connecticut shooting.

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