Charter schools hope school tax will pass

Funding of security an issue for non-traditional schools

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Andrea and Anthony Vargas meet with Sgt. Patricia O’Keefe at Stanley Switlik Elementary.

Every single child in a Keys public school — including charter schools — saw a police officer on the first day of school. It will cost the Monroe County School District almost $2 million to comply with the state-mandated Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act that requires a School Resource Officer (SRO) or a School Safety Officer (SSO) to be stationed at each campus.

Up until just a few weeks ago, it was unclear who would be paying for the resource officers located at charter schools. Statewide, some school districts argued that because charter schools receive separate Safe Schools funding it should be the responsibility of the charter. But in Monroe County, the district opted to pay for all of them — charters and traditional public schools — and fingers are crossed that voters will approve the ad valorem tax of up to .0625 mill. (See sidebar.)

“Everyone (each school) will have to take the hit if this tax doesn’t pass,” said Superintendent Mark Porter. “All the revenue to pay for this program has to come from us, or every man on his own.”

The Monroe County School District will receive a $700,000 allocation of the $162 million distributed statewide. But when divided per student, that means some charter schools would receive about $8,000. The cost of one officer per year — including benefits and equipment — is expected to be about $100,000.

“Eight thousand doesn’t buy anything,” said Cathy Hoffman, executive director of the Big Pine Academy, with 88 students. “So it’s a big relief to me (that the district is paying for now).”

Treasure Village Montessori Principal Kelly Mangel said it was touch and go until just before the start of the school year.

“I was scheduling a meeting to make the hard decision, cut back hours or curriculum,” she said. “I was also considering the ramifications of what would happen if I didn’t hire an officer.”

But what are the consequences if the schools cannot pay for an officer?

“It is an underfunded state mandate with no significant consequence except being a PR nightmare,” said District Superintendent Mark Porter, who added that the state also isn’t providing much technical assistance with this situation. “The governor did this without considering the financial impact.”

The school district or its employees cannot publicly campaign on the vote, but Porter stressed, “We’re back scrambling if this doesn’t pass.”

“Honestly, the first days, officers exceeded my expectations and were very supportive with the kids,” said May Sands Montessori Principal Lynn Barras. But she’s worried about continued funding and who is responsible — the state, the district or the individual schools.

School District Finance Director James Drake said there is money in the current budget to cover the SRO costs … for the meantime.

“If the tax passes, we will start collecting the money in November of this year. We usually ‘float’ the first 3.5 months of the year,” he said, citing the school’s fiscal year start and end dates.

Both the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Key West Police Department have signed contracts with the school district to provide services. MCSO will handle nine schools — six traditional and three charters with a staff of nine officers, plus two sergeants and one executive director. Each school has a dedicated officer, with enough overlap to provide for vacation days, for example. KWPD has five full-time officers to cover the five Key West schools, and will hire off-duty officers to work shifts at two charter schools — May Sands Montessori and Key West Collegiate. The school district will pay the MCSO $1 million per year and the KWPD a little under $700,000.

“The calculated millage tax plan provides for 16 full time SRO salaries, training and equipment at an overestimated $1.8 million. This money would only be used for resource officers, nothing else, and any extra funds, would be carried over from year to year.”

— Superintendent Mark Porter.

“We are still trying to find a way to fund the whole year and if the tax for funding is not passed on Aug. 28, I don’t know what we will do,” said Barras. With operating costs at $1 million a year, May Sands already has to fund-raise $100,000 or 10 percent for enrichment programs such as art and music and extra teachers. In order to pay for the SSO this year, the school cut one full-time salaried employee and the enrichment programs.

Florida schools have three options when it comes to providing security under the new law — SROs on loan from a traditional law enforcement agency, SSOs which could be sort of a school-based police force, or the Guardian Program, which trains and arms staff.

On Aug. 21, the Office of the Governor announced an extra $58 million to be distributed statewide — the remainder of the $67 million in unclaimed funds to support the Guardian Program which trains and arms volunteer staff.

From the start, Monroe County schools were dead set against the Guardian Program, said Porter.

Sheriff Rick Ramsay said it was a last-minute scramble to get all of his officers in place.

“The funding was in limbo and nobody really stood up and came up with the money,” Ramsay said. “The MCSO is not a funding source, but we were onboard with the whole program. The district elected to use our services and we, in turn, assume all of the liability and exposure.”

REFERENDUM

Titled “Increased Security Funding for Monroe County Schools,” the measure seeks to raise ad valorem taxes up to .0625 mils. State legislators passed House Bill 7026 in the aftermath of the tragic Parkland School shooting in Broward County. The law requires every school district in Florida to hire school resource officers and school safety officers. The tax levy is designed to raise no more than $1.5 million per year. School officials purposely included the “up to” language so as to levy only enough tax to pay for the gap between what’s provided by the state and the actual cost of the school security.

The school district is proposing an ad valorem tax of 3.37 mills in total. (The budget has yet to be approved.) A non-homesteaded home valued at $500,000 would pay about $1,600 in school taxes — or about $42.28 more than last year to cover the security.

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