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School officials make case to lawmakers for boosting safety funding

The conversation about how to improve Florida schools’ safety in light of the Sandy Hook massacre turned to funding today. Representatives from three school districts talked to the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee about how the state dollars they receive are spent and what they would do if they got more.

Scott Howat, senior executive director of Orange County schools, says the districts received $5.5 million from the state this year in Safe Schools funding. Half of that helps pay for school resources officers: one at each middle and high school and a team that rotates among elementary schools on a 1-to-4 ratio.

The district is also working withits  county and municipal governments in hopes of placing a resource officer at every elementary school. Parents are asking for it, Howat said. In addition, outside experts have been asked to help conduct a comprehensive security audit.

“It’s obviously a deep concern because of what happened at Sandy Hook and Newtown, Conn.,” Howat said. “We want to make sure that as we’re looking forward that we’re looking at this in a very holistic way.”

Each year, the state allocates Safe School funds that districts can use for a variety of prevention and intervention programs. During the 2012-2013 school year, $64.5 million was divided among the 67 school districts according to a formula that takes into consideration the district size and crime data.

That is down roughly 15 percent from the 2007-2008 school year, when the Safe Schools appropriation was $75.6 million.

The vast majority of these funds goes toward hiring and training school resource officers. Local governments also pitch in money but to a lesser degree, and there are also some federal dollars available. During Wednesday’s meeting, legislators asked for more data on the cost of school resource officers and how counties are paying for them.

Volusia County Deputy Superintendent Robert Moll said his district would like to place campus safety advisers at every elementary school, but doesn’t have the money for it. The school also needs money to make upgrades at school buildings to limit access.

“We have sprawling campuses, and that’s the way our Florida schools are built,” Moll said, noting that many classroom doors open directly to the outside and some schools have multiple points of entry instead of a main corridor.

Baker County Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson said the Sandy Hook shooting hit especially close to home because she is a former kindergarten teacher and has a granddaughter in kindergarten.

Her small district only received $119,000 in Safe School funds.

She agreed with other school officials that more money, and flexibility on how to spend it, is needed. But she also warned that there is no silver bullet that will erase all risk.

“I don’t think there’s ever enough money” to meet every districts’ need, she said. “And I don’t think there’s enough money you can appropriate to make our schools so safe that you can prevent this from happening.”

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