It’s been nearly three months since the shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., turned school safety into a national hot button issue.
As Florida House and Senate lawmakers prepare for Tuesday’s start of the legislative session, how best to protect kids on tens of thousands of public school campuses throughout the state and in Palm Beach County promises to get even hotter.
Already, lobbyists and legislators are pushing for everything from putting armed officers at every school to allowing more “code red” lockdown drills in case of an armed gunman. Just last week, a Sarasota lawmaker proposed a bill that would allow teachers to pack heat on campus. But while there is no shortage of ideas — and passion — about public school safety and campus security, finding the dollars to match has so far, proved a tougher row.
Out of the gate, Gov. Rick Scott has proposed an increase of about $10.5 million from the state to beef up school security in all 67 county districts. But that proposal has been found wanting by the Florida School Board Association, which is seeking an increase of at least $100 million.
But $100 million to put an armed officer in every school is only a start, according to association lobbyist Ruth Melton. Schools have even more needs to bolster campus safety, she said, like increasing the number of guidance counselors.
Chuck Shaw, chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board, is looking even further down the road.
“The important thing is for the legislature to not just react, and do something that is a one-time thing,” he said. “If (the funding) can’t be sustained, then we won’t accomplish anything.”
Shaw and the school board have already received dual proposals, the result of a school-by-school review of campus security in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, that look to add armed officers at county public schools.
Schools Police Chief Lawrence Leon said while putting an officer on every campus would add at least $6.6 million more to his annual budget, simply reducing the ratio of elementary schools currently covered by a single officer would cost about $2.5 million. Both numbers would cover only salaries and benefits, not equipment or training, he said.
School board members Frank Barbieri and Mike Murgio have both said they prefer an officer in every school to the current system. So has state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, who is on the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.
Abruzzo called the governor’s proposed $10.5 million increase — a 16 percent bump — in the school safety budget a “step in the right direction” but said he would push in upcoming committee meetings for much more school safety funding. He did not specify an amount, however.
Schools as ‘fortresses’?
State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, warned that lawmakers need to be careful and not go overboard on spending for more officers and campus upgrades.
“Let’s not turn our schools into fortresses where parents and the community are not welcome,” he said.
It’s those types of sentiments that has Murgio unwilling to leave the district’s fate completely in the hands of state lawmakers. He said local cities, and the county, should raise property taxes to pay for the additional officers at schools.
“I think the community would not be opposed to an extra quarter mill (25 cents of property tax for every $1,000 of taxable value) for school police,” he said.
That may be needed if school districts want to do more than hire additional armed officers.
Leon, the schools police chief, said physical upgrades, like improving the communications systems between the main office and classrooms, are also needed at some older schools. While he declined to say exactly what upgrades he has recommended at which schools, or how much they would cost, district officials have forecast a $56 million budget shortfall for next year for all of its capital improvements needs — including security upgrades.
Say taxes, ‘people go nuts’
Hopes for money for such security upgrades, like more cameras, rest largely with lobbying efforts by school districts statewide to get the ability to levy more property taxes. The districts will push legislators for the power to levy an additional 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value for capital improvement needs. This would return the 50 cents of property tax the legislature took from school districts in 2010.
Board members, however, acknowledge their efforts to essentially raise taxes may have an uphill battle. “As soon as you start talking taxes, people go nuts,” Barbieri said, “but the reality is we don’t have any more money to pay for our capital needs.”
Negron, chairman of the powerful state Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was willing to listen to school districts’ concerns, but thinks school safety and the district’s capital improvement needs are two separate issues. “It is not appropriate to use a national tragedy in another state to rationalize a general increase in taxes for capital funding,” he said.
Meanwhile, several legislators have proposed bills that would create novel approaches to funding school safety needs.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, have filed bills (SB 514 and HB 873) that would allow school boards to create special taxing districts. Through a voter referendum, the districts would be able to levy between 10 cents and 50 cents of property taxes for school safety.
“Everyone thinks school safety is important,” Sobel said, “but they don’t fund it enough.”
Despite agreeing with Sobel on the need for funding, Shaw said of her proposal, “All that does is create a new level of bureaucracy.”
A House bill (HB 325) proposed by Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, would take some of the revenue from the sales of guns and ammunition and give it to to school districts for student mental health services. According to the bill, money could not be spent on cameras and fences or other security capital needs.
“This is a mental health bill,” Matt Alford, a Stewart spokesman, said. “This is not a bill directed at firearms or taxes.”
Alford said Stewart’s bill would also make it a third-degree felony to possess a firearm within 500 feet of any school property or school-sponsored event.
Last week, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, filed a bill (HB 1097) that would require every school to either have an armed officer or have the principal designate school employees — like teachers — to carry a gun on campus. Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, is expected to file a companion bill in the Senate.
Similar measures have been filed by legislators in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and New Hampshire in the wake of the December shooting in Newtown.
Steube said he’s received positive feedback from some Florida educators and school board members. But Palm Beach County’s Shaw said the idea prompts numerous unanswered questions for schools districts — such as what criteria would be used to pick who gets to carry a gun, whether those employees would be considered sworn officers with arrest powers and what legal liability districts would face in the event of a shooting.
Steube said whether it is an armed police officer or other employee, schools face the same legal liability. “You can’t prevent people from suing,” he said. “I want to make sure our children are safe.”
On what is likely a less controversial front, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed a bill (SB 790) that would allow schools to substitute some of the 10 required annual fire drills with “code red” lockdown drills.
Retired Palm Beach School Police Chief Jim Kelly said Palm Beach County schools have been trying to get this change for years so schools can practice lockdown scenarios, without losing more crucial classroom learning time.
“When is the last time there has been a fire in a school?” Kelly said.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.
School security measures in U.S.
Some of bills proposed in other states:
Arizona: A state House bill would allow selected school employees — ranging from teachers to maintenance workers — to have their gun at school in a locked box, where they could get to it in an emergency while they are working.
Pennsylvania: A state House bill would allow teachers and other school employees, like principals, to carry guns at school if they have firearms training.
Virginia: A state House bill requires each school district to create “threat assessment teams” to train others in the school in how to recognize threatening behavior, develop policies for dealing with them and to report to the superintendent any people who they think might be a threat. The bill then allows the superintendent to access the criminal and medical record history of that person.
New Jersey: Assembly bill would allow the state’s attorney general to seize firearms, pending a hearing, from anybody who has been deemed by a mental health professional to be likely to harm themselves or others.
California: A Senate bill would allow the state to withhold money from school districts that do not have all their required safety and emergency response plans up to date.
Source: Post research
Keeping Watch on Power
Florida lawmakers return to work at the Capitol Tuesday and The Palm Beach Post will be there. Look to our veteran reporters - John Kennedy and Dara Kam on state government and George Bennett on Palm Beach County politics - for in-depth coverage.