In their silence the members of the Gulf County School Board expressed all they needed Tuesday.
Emerging from nearly an hour behind doors in executive session, board members declined to approve a recommendation to apply for funding from the state’s Guardian program.
The recommendation from Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton received an initial motion for passage from board member Billy Quinn, Jr., but there was no second.
The lack of a second did two things; cut off board discussion on the issue and allowed the motion to approve to die for lack of that second.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said board chair Brooke Wooten. “This was a very tough meeting, a very tough decision.”
In the final analysis, there was a lack of consensus among Norton, the School Board and Sheriff Mike Harrison.
Norton noted that all three entities needed to agree on a plan and acknowledged he and Harrison could not find sufficient common ground to bring a plan to the board.
From the outset, Norton has been outspoken in his support of the district applying for funding under the Guardian program.
He said several members of district staff had been identified as potential guardians and urged school board members to approve the application, which had to be submitted by July 1.
“I do support it in a limited, tempered application,” Norton said of the Guardian legislation. “The plan I put before you was a common sense, tapered and limited approach.”
Harrison, on the other hand, has been equally consistent in voicing reservations about entering into the Guardian program.
Under the program, district personnel eligible for Guardian would become special deputies under the SO, required to undergo psychiatric examination and more than 130 hours of firearms training.
Those selected for the program, and it could not be a classroom teacher with the exception of members of law enforcement, the military or an NJROTC instructor, would only be allowed to brandish a weapon in the event of an active school shooter.
Harrison has said repeatedly that there were other aspects of school safety that should be the focus before arming school staff, adding that while he did not oppose the law, specifics of implementation were a distance away from being refined in his view.
“Based on 27 years in law enforcement … we are doing everything we can to keep our kids safe,” Harrison said. “We have a good plan.”
That plan includes hiring additional School Resource Officers (SRO) to have one uniformed officer, with a patrol car, at each of the district’s four public schools with a roving supervisor.
Norton noted that the district had taken other steps contained in state school safety legislation earlier this year, including hiring additional mental health counselors and earmarking school safety funds to bolster the SRO presence.
The district does not yet know the extent of funding to be received under legislation aimed at bolstering security measures at public schools; that money is not due until early next year.
But Harrison remained opposed to applying for Guardian funding and the School Board, after spirited closed door debate, expressed, without words, its own opposition.
“I pray you are right about this and I am wrong, I truly do,” Norton said after his recommendation failed to find traction.
The School Board must quickly pivot from Guardian, which has dominated the agenda for nearly a month, to the budget, with more tough decisions ahead.
Norton said the district is receiving less basic funding than last year, despite rising costs, and said the board would have to make a decision to either reduce the workforce or programs or increase taxes.
The district’s budget is almost entirely written in Tallahassee by state lawmakers, who while sending nearly $400,000 into school safety added just 47 cents to the base allocation per student.
That, Norton and financial officer Sissy Worley have said over the past month, leaves the district without sufficient new money to maintain the status quo, forcing either cuts or tax increases.
The district has yet to receive final budget numbers, but the new fiscal year will arrive at the end of the month.