School expands guardian program

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County School Board gave final approval to expand the guardian program to teachers at its meeting Sept. 10.

All board members favored the motion, which will allow teachers to volunteer for the guardian program and carry a concealed firearm on campus.

Before the final vote, board members heard from Okeechobee resident Adam Cohen, who spoke for expanding the program. Mr. Cohen, who has two children in the Okeechobee school district, voiced his approval of the expansion at an earlier school board meeting as well when board members were first considering allowing teachers to join the guardian program.

“As a member of the community with kids in the schools, I’m asking you to please do this,” said Mr. Cohen shortly before school board members voted. “We need to do something. We can’t just sit back, do nothing and just pretend that everything is going to be OK. Teachers are willing to selflessly volunteer to protect our kids. Please, let them.”
In order to be eligible to join the guardian program, a teacher must already have a concealed carry permit. Each will have to go through 132 hours of firearm safety training by certified instructors, 80 hours of firearm instruction, 16 hours of precision pistol training, eight hours of instruction with a simulator, eight hours of active shooter scenario instruction, eight hours of instruction in defensive tactics and 12 hours’ instruction on legal issues. They must also pass a psychological evaluation, and an additional drug test along with random drug tests throughout the year. Guardians would have to complete ongoing training at least annually.

All teachers who wish to volunteer to be a guardian have to be approved by both Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy and Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen before moving forward with training.

The school board also voted not to call for a referendum regarding a sales tax for school resource officer funding. The referendum was suggested by the Okeechobee Board of County Commissioners at their Aug. 13 budget workshop.

During that workshop, which Mr. Kenworthy attended, Okeechobee County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said some school districts had placed a half-cent sales tax on the ballot. He suggested such a tax could help pay for the school resource officers who work in the schools, and also help finance student mental health programs. Commissioner Burroughs asked Mr. Kenworthy to take the referendum idea back to the school board and said they could get it on the ballot for the 2020 presidential preference primary or they could use a mail-in ballot.

At the school board meeting Sept. 10, members wondered why the referendum hadn’t been brought up at the joint workshop the school board had with the Okeechobee City Council and county commission three months earlier in June.

“I’m disappointed that this discussion didn’t happen at that time,” said school board member Joe Arnold, “because in my opinion that was the appropriate time for us to discuss the future of the SROs. I had asked to discuss all of our options during that meeting, but there was very little two-way communication. So I feel that the true intent of that workshop was avoided by not having true, open discussion. If this board does decide to move forward with a referendum, I would prefer to do it in a joint workshop where all options are discussed, rather than going back and forth through the superintendent and county administrator.”

Mr. Kenworthy also explained that a sales tax would not be an option for the school district, because any money collected from the sales tax could only be used for capital dollars, while SRO costs are an operational expense. The district’s only option would be an increase in the millage.

“I’m not opposed to a referendum,” said School Board Chairwoman Jill Holcomb. “But if I’m voting on a referendum, I want to do it in the right way. I don’t want to do it because another agency has told me this is what I need to do. I agree that we need to sit down and stop this game of telephone tag we have going on with the county commission. Bringing more money into the district is wonderful, but not at the expense of the taxpayer if they feel like this is not something they want to fund. We need more discussion. And that should have taken place at the workshop we already had. That was the point of the workshop. But it didn’t happen.”

The joint workshop, which was June 17, lasted all of 30 minutes, with Commissioner Burroughs opening by saying the county planned to finance the SRO program this year.
“As far as the board is concerned today, we’re going to fund this for this year,” Commissioner Burroughs said in his opening statement. “I don’t know if anybody else wants to have any conversation about it. But I think the issue here was trying to figure out who is going to fund it this evening, and the board, to a person, has stipulated that they want to go on and fund this.”

The workshop ended with a general consensus that both the county commissioners and school board members would keep pushing lawmakers in Tallahassee for more money to pay for the SRO mandate. But ultimately nothing substantive was planned or discussed, and the workshop ended almost as quickly as it began.

For now the Okeechobee County School Board voted not to move forward with a referendum, pending more discussions with the Board of County Commissioners, Okeechobee City Council and Sheriff Stephen.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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