Decision likely at June 5 meeting





The Gulf County School Board will consider a recommendation to apply for the state “Guardian” program during a meeting this coming Tuesday.

A 9:30 a.m. ET workshop will be followed by a 10 a.m. meeting on June 5.

During a workshop Wednesday, Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton said he would recommend to the board the district notifies the state of its intent to apply for funding from the Guardian program.

The program, approved by the Florida Legislature in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in February, would allow certain district staff to carry firearms and become special deputies of the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Mike Harrison would have to approve the district’s plan; Norton indicated that Harrison said he would be flexible regarding the timeline and implementation of the program.

“This sends a powerful message to those outside looking in that we are taking every possible step to protect our students,” Norton said.

Norton has expressed support for entering the program from the outset, but after a recent workshop that included Harrison the board seemed to step back, particularly with Harrison focused on other aspects of the school safety legislation.

For example, part of the school safety bills passed earlier this year includes funding to place a School Resource Officer at every school site.

“Unfortunately, this legislation has pitted superintendents and school boards and sheriffs,” Norton said.

Norton, acknowledging that the board may or may not support his recommendation, said he believed the district should move forward.

The district must inform the state of its participation in the program by July 1 to be eligible for funding.

“Could it have been put forward better, yes,” Norton said. “We have a decision, yes or no. I am willing to check the ‘yes’ box.”

Norton said the district had identified staff on both ends of the county to participate in the program.

Details such as the identity of those staff members would be kept out of the public domain, Norton said, but he emphasized all other details about the district’s participation should be made in the sunshine.

At least a portion of next Tuesday’s meeting is likely to be in closed executive session, Norton said, to discuss sensitive details of the recommended plan.

Norton said he would also be talking with Harrison to find as much common ground as possible as the plan moves forward.

Candidates selected to be “guardians” must undergo a psychological exam and more than 130 hours of firearms training.

A major hurdle in this county is the strained resources of the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office, which currently lacks a training officer to provide district staff, needed training.

The “guardians” must have a concealed carry permit.

The Guardian program offers each “guardian” a one-time $500 stipend for the purchase of a law enforcement approved gun.

The “guardians” would become special deputies under the sheriff’s office, covered by the SO’s insurance and workmen’s compensation plan, another hurdle, and would only be able to act in the case of a live school shooting.

The “guardians” can not be a classroom teacher, with narrow exceptions for current law enforcement or military and NJROTC instructors.


New budget

Board members will also get a look Tuesday at the new budget numbers which, financial officer Sissy Worley has warned repeatedly, are going to translate into fewer dollars for basic operations.

While state lawmakers funneled significant funding into school safety and mental health services, that money did not go into the base student allocation, which was increased by a mere 47 cents.

That is 47-cent increase in funding per student.

“Less than 50 cents, we can’t even keep up with additional costs,” Norton said.

Worley said the preliminary numbers, and final numbers are not yet available to districts though the fiscal year ends with June’s end, indicate that to just sustain current operations and workforce levels the board will likely have to consider an increase in local ad valorem dollars.

The School Board is limited as to what it can and can not control in the budget, which is primarily set in Tallahassee.

“Just to maintain the status quo, to keep all teachers, we would have to raise taxes slightly,” Worley said, noting the increase might have to be as much as half a mill.