BY GARY FINEOUT and TERRY SPENCER
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s top incoming legislative leaders are rejecting Gov. Rick Scott’s push to redirect $58 million so school districts can hire more campus police officers. The lawmakers say the state should stay with a program they crafted that puts armed security guards and staff members in its public schools.
House Speaker-elect Jose Oliva and incoming Senate President-elect Bill Galvano, both Republicans, said Wednesday the money should remain budgeted for the state’s guardian program. The Republican governor, who leaves office in January and is running for the U.S. Senate, wants the unspent money freed so the districts can hire more officers.
An Associated Press survey found two-thirds of the districts want police officers or sheriff’s deputies in schools, with most saying their communities aren’t comfortable with anyone but sworn law enforcement officers carrying guns on campus.
Oliva and Galvano, who assume their roles in November, said their guardian program needs time to grow.
After a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, Scott and the Legislature passed the leaders’ bill making Florida the first state to require all public schools to have armed security on site whenever they’re open.
The state’s 67 countywide districts were given the more expensive choice of hiring additional police officers, also known as school resource officers, or supplementing the officers they already had with the cheaper guardian program. Any money not covered by the state had to be picked up by the districts.
Some districts, however, said they can’t afford officers and are hiring full-time guardians. These include Broward, Stoneman Douglas’ district. A police officer can cost $100,000 a year in salary and benefits, while guardians are estimated to cost between $30,000 and $50,000. Some districts, mostly in rural parts of the state, are supplementing officers with armed staff who get a $500 stipend, saying their communities support that arrangement.
So far, 22 districts have received $9.3 million out of $67 million set aside for guardians.
“Any new idea takes time for people to accept,” Oliva said. “When school resource officers were first mentioned as a possibility at schools (in the 1970s and 1980s), the big outcry was ‘never in my school.’ Today the outcry is for a police officer in every school.”
Galvano agreed, saying “it’s too early to change.”
“I don’t believe it was a mistake to go this route,” Galvano said. “For the program to get legs and really be vetted, and ultimately embraced, it had to have its own funding and not get comingled so we just operate in the status quo.”
The two legislators also noted that the guardian program was paid with one-time money and was not intended to be a yearly recurring expense.
Scott did not include the guardian program as part of his recommendations in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. He said on Wednesday that he will keep pushing for the money to be shifted over from the guardian program to the hiring of campus police officers.
“I want to do everything we can for our kids so I’m going to fight to make sure that money goes back into our schools,” Scott said following an appearance at the opening of a Walmart distribution center near Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
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