TALLAHASSEE — The events of Feb. 14 and the subsequent fallout at the state Capitol have left Florida school districts and sheriffs in a fiscal pickle.
Many school superintendents are opposed to arming staff members as part of the Aaron Feis Guardian program, named in honor of the high school assistant football coach killed in last month’s attack in Parkland. However, lawmakers allocated insufficient money to pay for a resource deputy at every school.
The school safety bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott includes a voluntary guardian program. It also orders school districts and sheriffs to cooperate to have either a school marshal or a sheriff’s deputy, a.k.a. a school resource officer, on every public-school campus.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri looked could see Friday morning that there isn't enough money in the state budget to pay the bill Tallahassee handed sheriffs and school superintendents.
“There’s an expectation created that there will be a law enforcement officer on every campus. How are we going to do that?” asked Gualtieri, looking at a $6.2 million tab to hire and equip 92 more deputies to comply with the law. “Sheriffs don’t have taxing authority. I can’t raise revenue. Someone else has to fund what I’m required to do. Who?”
Wakulla County moved to meet the law’s requirements last week when it became clear where the Legislature was going in response to the shooting that left 17 students and staff members dead at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The School Board approved spending the money to staff six additional school resource officers for the remainder of the year.
Superintendent Bobby Pearce said no decision has been made about arming staff as part of the guardian program. However, he did say that when the new school year begins in August, there will be two school resource officers at Wakulla High and one officer at each of the district’s middle and elementary schools.
“Every four years as an elected superintendent I put my hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the laws of the state of Florida,” Pearce said. “So if the law says we will have a resource officer at every school regardless of whether the funding comes down, which it appears it will not be, we by law will have to come up with the funds to carry that out.”
Statewide, another 1,500 deputies would be needed for every school campus to be staffed, according to the Florida Education Association, a teachers union. The Florida Sheriffs Association said it would cost about $360 million to comply. The budget spends $162 million on the program.
Districts can meet the requirement through a combination of deputies and guardians, a loophole critics of arming school staff feared lawmakers would exploit to avoid paying the bill for the public safety program they designed.
"I'm dumbfounded. We are going to have to go into our general fund to meet this mandate," said Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who is looking at a $700,000 difference between what the state will give him for the resource officer/guardian requirement and the actual cost to hire more deputies.
Hanna refuses to participate in the guardian program and said he has not talked to one school board member who disagrees with his position.
"If you are going to have a gun on one of our campuses then you are going to have a badge as well," said Hanna. "The odds of something going terribly wrong with this (arming staff) far outnumber anything going right."
The Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Seminole, Miami-Dade, Pasco and Pinellas County school districts, among the largest in the state, have also said they will not allow staff or teachers to carry guns.
On Friday morning Madison County School Superintendent Karen Pickles was scanning the education budget to see how much money the Legislature gave Madison schools. The district has two resource officers for its eight schools and had hoped to hire two more before the Stoneman Douglas shooting occurred.
“I need my teachers to teach. They are already overloaded,” said Pickles, who doesn’t want to arm teachers or staff.