County threatens to pull funding for school resource officers

OKEECHOBEE — Following the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners meeting on May 23 where county representatives decided to send word to the school district that they didn’t plan on helping with school resource officer (SRO) costs next year, school board members discussed what options they had for bridging the gap in funding.

Legislators in Tallahassee passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act back in 2018 in response to the shooting at the school that’s the bill’s namesake. A key part of that sweeping legislation was the mandate that every school in the state was required to have a sworn law enforcement officer on site.

An unfunded mandate by state legislators and a county commission unwilling to share the costs of having school resource officers has left the Okeechobee County School Board with few options. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion.

What the state didn’t included in the mandate was enough funding to carry it out.

The state would’ve needed $380 million in recurring financing to pay for SROs at every public school in Florida. But state legislators allocated only $160 million with no guarantee of continuing funding in the future.

In the past, the county and the school board each split the SRO salary costs for 10 months and the county funded the salaries 100 percent for two months.

When the new legislation passed in 2018 and Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel E. Stephen realized he would need to add seven more SROs, county commissioners agreed to increase the sheriff’s office budget that year.

“It’s our duty to see that he (the sheriff) has what he needs to protect our citizens and our property,” said Okeechobee County Commissioner Bradley Goodbread of adding the new SROs during a March 2018 meeting.

The school district paid for the bulk of the new SROs’ salaries for 2018-19. For that year the school district paid $573,332, with the county paying $387,872 and the city of Okeechobee paying $78,819 for the two SROs placed in schools within city limits.

The city has an informal agreement with the school district to continue that arrangement for the next school year. But county commissioners now say they do not wish to continue paying the remaining costs of the SRO program for the 2019-20 school year.

“I think the school board has some responsibility to try to manage this themselves,” said Commissioner Terry Burroughs during the May 23 meeting.

Commissioners Bradley Goodbread, David Hazellief and Bryant Culpepper agreed with that sentiment.

“This takes away from other things we can do,” said Commissioner Hazellief. “Whether that’s building something we need or a new library or books or whatever. How can you prioritize and say that because they chose not to get the funds we’re going to take away from ours?”

Commissioner Kelly Owens was the only member to voice hesitation at completely cutting money for the SROs.

“I feel like we need to have some conversations with them (the school board), in terms of finding out where the other $300,000 is coming from before we just say clearly we’re not doing it at all.”

The commissioners and school board members have a workshop scheduled on June 17 to discuss the funding gap for the state mandated SRO program.

School Board mulls options for funding

At their meeting on June 11, the Okeechobee County School Board discussed what options they had at their disposal that could be presented at the upcoming workshop.

Currently the school district has $618,215 allocated to pay for SRO costs in 2019-20. To cover the rest of the close to $1 million budget of the SRO salary, the school board could pull money from other district funds.

This could include taking money from the general fund, cutting from the transportation fund, which would affect bus routes for students, or cutting supplemental academic instruction, which would affect things like summer school and the ability to hire more teachers to lower class size.

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy raised another, more unorthodox way the school district could free up money for the SROs.

Currently, the school district and county split the costs of operating the Okeechobee County Sports Complex thanks to a 40-year contract the two entities entered into back in 1995. Under this agreement, the schools had priority for use during the school days. The school district now pays $152,138 annually for the sports complex, even though much of the property is being used mainly by recreational leagues run by the county parks and recreation department.

Mr. Kenworthy presented information to the school board that showed if the school district paid rental fees for the few times schools used the sports complex — for example, the OHS swim and tennis teams — it would only cost an estimated $34,300. Meaning, the school district is paying over $150,000 for the sports complex while only getting $34,000 of use. If the county government agreed to let the school district out of that 40-year contract, it would free up money to help with the mandated SRO costs.

According to Mr. Kenworthy, since 1995 the school district has spent over $3 million on the sports complex.

“Our preference would be that we leave the system the way that it is,” said Mr. Kenworthy. “We’ll continue to pay for the sports complex and you (county commission) continue to pay your share for the school resource officers, because we are partners in serving the community. These are all of our kids and all of our citizens.”

County commissioners want the school board to call for a referendum in 2020 to raise their millage rates to help pay for the SROs. A 0.25 increase in the millage rate would bring in an additional $500,000 to the school district, while a 0.5 increase would generate close to a million dollars.

It’s not guaranteed that Okeechobee County voters would agree to a millage increase. When the issue was last on the ballot in 2010, voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure of leaving a 0.25 mill increase in property tax in place, with 65% voting against and only 34% for the measure.

If a new referendum is also voted down, it leaves the school board back at square one of having to cut other school services to pay for the SROs.

There is also this question brought up at the school board meeting: If the county commission shifts 100% of the costs of the SRO program to the school board, after splitting it 50-50 in the past, would the county be open to lowering its own millage rate on taxpayers? The county commission collecting the same amount of taxes after dumping an expense on another governing body might not sit well with the usually tax-weary, conservative Okeechobee voters.

Reaction to commissioners’ comments

After Mr. Kenworthy’s presentation ahead of the workshop, school board members voiced their opinions on some of the comments made during the May 23 Okeechobee County Commission meeting.

“We’ve all watched video from the commission meeting,” said Okeechobee County School Board member Malissa Morgan. “Some of the comments that were made were very disappointing. Because as a board I know that we have crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ trying to obtain additional funding for this. Because these are our students, these are our children.”

Mrs. Morgan also pointed out that in bearing 100% of the SRO costs, the school board would be responsible for buying property such as vehicles and other law enforcement equipment that wouldn’t actually be owned by the school district but instead by OCSO, which is funded by the county.

“If this just becomes a battle of who pays for what,” continued Mrs. Morgan, “then who wins at the end of the day? Not our students.”

The workshop to discuss how to fund the SRO salaries for the 2019-20 school year will take place at 5 p.m. June 17 at the Okeechobee County Historic Courthouse.

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

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