The Broward County School District is scrambling to beef up school security and increase teacher pay while starting the school year in a $13.6 million hole.
Security has become a priority in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But officials say state funding actually dropped by $16 per student, making it tough to add new expenses.
Although the state increased education funding overall, much of it was earmarked for specific uses, such as mental health counselors and school resource officers, giving the district no new dollars to use at its discretion, officials said.
So far, the district has eliminated 35 vacant administrative positions and reduced spending on supplies, utilities, fuel and technology in an effort to offset the deficit.
But School Board members, four of whom are up for re-election this year, are anxious to respond to public demands for more security upgrades. The school district has updated security cameras in many schools, but has been slow to make good on promises to install gates and fences that limit public access on campuses.
While Stoneman Douglas now has a heavy law enforcement presence monitoring the campus, students and parents have complained at public meetings that few changes have been made at other schools.
“We keep waiting. We are all ready to act,” School Board member Donna Korn said. “We all want to do something but there are barriers.’’
The school district expects to hire a consultant soon to assess security at all the schools, with visits planned at all campuses in July and again in October. Those assessments enable the district to qualify for some of the $98.9 million the state has allocated to harden schools with features such as bullet-resistant doors and windows.
But because the district wouldn’t get any of that money until next year, board members are considering taking money out of reserves to make some noticeable upgrades before school resumes Aug. 15.
“If you ask the public: do they want money in reserves or spent on safety, there’s no doubt in my mind what the answer is,” School Board member Patti Good said.
School Board members say they also want to provide raises for teachers, who are increasingly difficult to recruit and retain.
Broward Schools General Counsel Barbara Myrick also said district computer systems are in dire need of upgrades.
“The databases don’t talk to each other. It’s a struggle to get educational records for students,” she said.
Superintendent Robert Runcie cited similar problems when explaining why the district had trouble knowing whether Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz participated in the Promise program, which provides alternatives to arrests for some misdemeanor offenses.
The school district is hoping a new tax would fund at least some expenses. Voters will decide Aug. 28 whether to pay an additional 50 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property value. It would raise about $93 million a year for the district, but there’s no guarantee it will pass.
The school district will receive about $7 million to hire more law enforcement officers. But Chief of Staff Jeff Moquin said that won’t be enough to meet the state’s requirement of one officer in every school unless they can persuade cities to share the costs of the new officers.
Under the current agreement, cities decide how many officers they want to fund in each school. Some cities, such as Fort Lauderdale, have chosen not to pay for officers in elementary schools.
The district chose not to participate in a state program that provides money to certain school employees who agree to be armed on campus. Officials are awaiting guidance on whether they can use any of that money to hire more police officers.
There is also a shortage of 300 police officers in the county, making it difficult to fill those positions if funded, Moquin said.