Okeechobee officials agree to fund SROs

OKEECHOBEE — The joint workshop concerning school resource officer (SRO) funding between the Okeechobee Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), Okeechobee County School Board and Okeechobee City Council on June 17 was over almost as quickly as it began.

BOCC Chairman Terry Burroughs opened the workshop by stating that the county intended to help fund the SROs for the upcoming school year.

“As far as the board is concerned today, we’re going to fund this for this year,” Commissioner Burroughs said. “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 only lasted approximately 30 minutes. In comparison, last year’s workshop on the same issue lasted nearly and hour and twenty minutes.

Commissioner Burroughs also stated he didn’t understand why there was such “interesting commentary” leading up to the workshop and decried some of the information broadcasted ahead of the meeting as “inaccurate.”

The BOCC drew some criticism from both the Okeechobee community and school board members following an informal discussion county commissioners held a month ago regarding the upcoming workshop. In a discussion during the BOCC meeting on May 23, many of the county commissioners seemed hesitant to fund the SRO program in the upcoming school year. Instead, laying that responsibility solely at the feet of the school board, who they suggested didn’t do enough to obtain additional funding from the state legislature.

“I know we’ve asked for a workshop, but I think we’re going to run out of time,” said Commissioner David Hazellief during the BOCC discussion back on May 23. “I think we need to put the school board on notice, if everyone agrees, that we expect ‘x’ amount of dollars to fund this. Because if we wait, pretty soon they’re going to say they don’t have it in their budget.”

“I think the issue is if it’s clearly their (school board) responsibility by state law, then we’re not going to fund it,” said Commissioner Burroughs a little later in the May 23 BOCC discussion.

“So is that consensus to send them (school board) notice that we expect them to pay for it?” followed up Commissioner Hazellief.

“I would venture to say that is exactly right,” answered Commissioner Burroughs.

After the workshop ended on June 17, Commissioner Burroughs attempted to clarify those initial comments from the May 23 meeting in an interview with Lake Okeechobee News.

“All those thoughts were basically some of the commissioners trying to deal with understanding what they needed to do for the upcoming budget cycle,” explained Commissioner Burroughs. “Each individual commissioner has his or her own thoughts. But the budget cycle is very difficult. I would challenge anybody that sits out in the public to come and sit through the budget cycle and see what the people in the county go through to get this budget put together. The commissioners were simply outlining their feelings regarding the upcoming budget cycle.”

Outlining their feelings or not, the Okeechobee County School Board took the commissioners’ comments at face value and spent a large portion of their June 11 meeting discussing what options the school district had if the county did indeed decide not to help fund the program.

But ultimately that preparation by the school board was unneeded, as the county agreed to keep sharing the costs of the SRO program with the school distinct as they have done since the late 1990s.

Before the workshop ended, school board chairwoman Jill Holcomb also pushed back on the idea that the school district didn’t seek additional money from the state government.

“We have been to Tallahassee; we worked very hard on that last year,” said Mrs. Holcomb. “This exact issue was on our legislative platform that (Superintendent Ken) Kenworthy presented at the delegation. I appreciate your work, but we have been doing the same as well. We’ve fought for this tirelessly and I want to make sure it’s understood that we’re not just sitting back and then saying ‘please help’.”

Commissioner Burroughs acknowledged that the school board had been fighting for money from state legislators and mentioned that he has heard from lobbyists in Tallahassee that this year was one of the worst they had ever seen, with some state legislators saying one thing and then doing something completely different.

One consensus coming out of the workshop was that the real, ultimate problem was the state passing unfunded mandates and expecting small counties with limited budgets to comply. Both the BOCC and school board agreed that they would keep pushing lawmakers in Tallahassee for more money to pay for the SRO mandate.

“You can’t have a state legislature that cuts the money on a mandated program,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “How do you say that you’re going to mandate it but not going to fund it? The reason they do that is come election time they can say they cut $10 million from the state budget. But they don’t tell people about the resulting action from what they created. You have counties like this that every year is scraping by trying to meet our budget, and now we have to fund a state mandate to make Tallahassee look good. It’s not right.”

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

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