Coach Aaron Feis school guardian training program money vetoed by Gov. DeSantis
As Florida public schools figure out how to reopen safely in the fall during the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis this week vetoed $41.6 million to train teachers, coaches and other school employees to be armed guardians on their campuses.
The line item veto at the back of the budget wipes out money leftover from last year in The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.
Forty-two school districts participate in the program, named after the coach who sacrificed himself shielding students from a gunman who killed 17 people at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
“It was a surprise that was vetoed because there was lots of support for the guardian program,” said Ted Roush, superintendent of Suwannee County schools. “It had really been encouraged and supported at the state level.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that recommended the guardianship program, said he wasn’t overly concerned with the veto.
“All that money was to be used for was training and equipment and all that needs to be done,” Gualtieri said. “It’s just a matter of looking for additional funding. It’s not a big deal. Everybody will come together and come up with it.”
Gualtieri estimated it costs a little over $2 million a year to provide guardianship training throughout the state.
The program was established through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act approved by the Legislature in 2018 and signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott. It started with a one-time, nonrecurring pot of $67 million, with $500,000 in recurring dollars.
In state budget lingo, money can be “recurring” — expected to be repeatedly needed and thus budgeted in future years — or “nonrecurring,” that is, set aside only once and then spent.
The program got off to a slow start the first year with a low number of school districts signing up for it, which left a huge amount of money left over, so the Legislature rolled over the unused dollars into the following year’s budget.
State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, tried to get the unspent money moved into the Safe Schools Grant pot, but failed. One of the reasons was that it was an attempt to put nonrecurring revenue into a recurring account.
The Safe Schools allocation has $180 million for schools to spend on school resource officers and other safety measures. Each school gets a minimum of $250,000 a year.
Gualtieri said he believes stakeholders will find the money needed to keep the guardianship program going. “It’s not an option to not have school safety officers on campus,” he said.
But “it would be inappropriate for the county sheriffs to fund it,” he added, saying it should come from the Florida Department of Education and local school boards.
Roush said he understood the governor was in a tight spot, with the budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic weighing on the state’s economy, and didn’t fault him for cutting the program.
“I personally do not believe there was a lack of support. It comes down to dollars and cents,” Roush said.
The money covers the outlay by sheriff’s departments for screening and training guardians as well as paying guardians a one-time $500 stipend. Guardians can be teachers, coaches or other school employees, or people hired specifically to serve as school guardians.
School districts don’t see the money because it’s drawn down by the sheriffs to cover the cost of screening, psychological evaluations, training, ammunition and liability insurance.
That comes to about $5,000 for a new recruit to $2,000 for ongoing training of guardians, Roush said.
He wouldn’t give the specific number for security reasons, but said his district has a substantial number of guardians relative to the number of students and schools in the tiny rural district of just over 6,000 students.
“It's a concern for the ongoing training of our existing guardians as well as new training for a new recruiting class to replace retirees and people who leave for other reasons,” he said.
And the district doesn’t have the money to provide that training: “We’re going to have to figure it out. We are absolutely committed to preserving the integrity of the program. The program going away is not an option,” Roush said.
In the interim, he said, the district won’t be putting together a training class for new recruits. Safety continues to be a top concern as the school district plans to reopen schools on Aug. 10, he said.
“We are not going to forgo our responsibility to provide a safe learning environment,” Roush said. “Because it is not a priority at the state level, that doesn't mean it isn’t a priority at the local level.”