Funding for SROs still up in the air

Posted: Jun 29, 2018 6:45 PM Updated:

For the first day of school in Lee County, there will be at least one school resource officer in every school at a total cost of $8 million.

Lee County school board member Steven Teuber said the school district has met its burden of paying about 50 percent of that cost.

"It's not a school district issue. Our 50 percent we've always said we'll pay it, we have paid it," Teuber said.

Historically, the Lee County School District has paid for half of the SRO's and Lee County covered the other half.

Under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, the state legislature gave an extra $97 million to school districts to help hire SRO's but Teuber said that won't cover the total expense since the other partner agencies aren't receiving any extra funding.

"The state legislature has just kind of walked away, just kind of threw it in our laps and said figure it out and walked away," Teuber said.
 
The cities of Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Sanibel have agreed to help staff local schools in their districts with their police officers at a cost of roughly $2 million combined. Lee County commissioners approved covering costs for schools in unincorporated Lee County at a cost of $2.8 million.   
    
But there's no agreement yet for who will pay in Estero, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach. That's about $600,000 that no one has figured out how to fund.

"They [Lee County School District] haven't come forward and told us what their plans are. I don't think they have a plan," Village of Estero Vice-Mayor Bill Ribble said.

Ribble said this council hasn't been approached about helping fund the difference for SRO's.

"The issue is how's the money going to be paid and I think if you take a look at the school district $1.6 billion budget I can't believe you go and look at every one of their cost buckets...they can't pick up $150,000," Ribble said.

The Bonita Springs and  Fort Myers Beach councils already voted that they won't pay. Unlike Fort Myers and Cape Coral, they don't have their own police force.

Bonita Springs mayor Peter Simmons wrote in a statement on Friday:

"The county had been contributing to the cost of resource officers throughout the school district from the county property tax. Now the County has made a misguided policy decision to switch, and only contribute to the expense of school resource officers in the unincorporated part of the County. Bonita Spring residents already pay Lee County to fund law enforcement."

Teuber said the school board and the school district aren't yearning to get into a political battle over who picks up the check.

"We don't really want to step in with the cities unless the county commission at the end of the day they want our help to work with the cities," Teuber said.

Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker said the duty lies with the school board.

"If they want some of these towns to pay they need to ask them to," Kiker said. "This is not a Lee County problem. It's a problem in every one of the counties."

Polk and Brevard counties, which are both similar in size to Lee County, have selected a different option than placing SRO's in every school. They're moving forward with the guardian program. The sheriff's office will help train armed security guards instead of SRO's. The Polk County Sheriff's Office said they don't have "the time or budget" to hire new SRO's.

LCSD denied NBC 2's request for an interview because they refused to answer questions about the funding dilemma. Instead, the district provided a list of reasons why SRO's were chosen as the option as opposed to the guardians.

"It's not because it's the best decision it's because it's the one they can afford," Teuber said referring to Polk and Brevard counties. "Because the state legislature put us into a decision to either do the right thing or to do it on the cheap and put kids in harm's way."

Governor Rick Scott fired back Monday at school districts that say the money isn't there. 

"They have the ability to pay for these law enforcement officers and they ought to be doing it," Scott said.

Ribble is backing Scott.

"He came right out blatantly and said it's school district's responsibility," Ribble said.

Despite the funding gap, the sheriff's office has promised SRO's will be in schools come August. LCSO denied NBC 2's request for an interview to ask more question about the SRO's. It is unknown what LCSO's plan is to staff the schools and if that means pulling deputies off the streets,

While Teuber and Kiker point the finger at each other for fixing the current dilemma they both said the legislature has to come up with a better plan to pay for it long term.

"If you look at the numbers and you look at the facts Governor Scott's a little bit off base," Teuber said.

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