To the Editor:
Our community has proved time and again that we will stand together to face a challenge or fulfill a need. There is no more important need than the safety and security of our children and grandchildren.
When the Florida Legislature mandated that school districts assign at least one “safe school officer” at each school facility earlier this year, the Lee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) acted quickly, paying 50 percent of the school district’s cost to provide this important safety measure at every school in unincorporated Lee County.
The BoCC did this voluntarily; nothing mandates or compels county governments or city governments to participate financially in the School Safety Act. The act is an unfunded mandate handed to all school districts in Florida. The statute’s language states, “…each district school board and school district superintendent shall partner with law enforcement agencies to establish or assign one or more safe school officers at each school facility…”
The 2018 legislative session ended on March 11, and the School Safety Act passed during the last two weeks of the session. The governor’s March 25 letter to school districts explained that the act provided $64 million statewide – enough for 647 new officers. We know the statewide need is 2,000 new officers. (The Lee County School District portion is $1.6 million.)
Lee County has a history of providing a 50-50 share of funding for the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. In all, the BoCC has spent $17 million during the last decade, a significant commitment to the protection of our children.
For years leading up to 2011, the County partnered with the school district financially to pay for SROs in schools in the unincorporated area. These funds were from the unincorporated MSTU tax rate, which is paid only by property owners outside of city boundaries in the unincorporated area. Likewise, the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers paid their portion within their boundaries from city tax rates and used their own officers.
In 2011, both cities left the program, and the Sheriff started to supply SROs to municipal middle and high schools. Beginning in fiscal year 2011/12, the BoCC agreed to fund Cape Coral’s and Fort Myers’ 50 percent share to provide officers at all middle and high schools, using a post-recession combination of General Fund and unincorporated MSTU funding.
This arrangement was intended to accommodate the hard times of the recession when all entities suffered significant tax-base and revenue losses. It was never intended to be a permanent arrangement, nor was the SRO program intended to be a General Fund countywide service.
The County has continued its participation. The County’s SRO allocation for fiscal year 2018/19 will be $2.8 million, a nearly 17 percent increase from $2.4 million in the prior year. We have communicated this commitment openly.
The BoCC addressed SRO funding in its April 3 budget work session, and that consensus was codified April 17 at the regularly scheduled meeting. On April 23, we notified the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Lee County School District of the BoCC’s action.
The discussion has continued in our community. On May 1, Waterman Broadcasting aired on NBC-2 a report on the BoCC’s action. Then a May 8 school board meeting at which the SRO funding issue – and the BoCC’s action – was discussed generated additional and increased media coverage in print and broadcast.
Lee County Commissioners recognize the importance of funding a portion of school safety by paying 50 percent of the unfunded mandated costs for unincorporated Lee County. The City of Cape Coral, the City of Fort Myers, the City of Sanibel and the County have all stepped forward to partner with the school district to fund this initiative in the areas for which they are responsible and keep our children safe at school.
We appreciate that commitment, which we know we all share.
Roger Desjarlais is the Lee County Manager