A new contingent of armed employees with the Citrus County School District are making good first impressions with their bosses as they keep watch for attacks on campuses.
Mike Mullen and Jonny Bishop, the school district’s two assistant superintendents, said to the Chronicle Editorial Board on Wednesday they've heard nothing but positive feedback from parents and students about the eight guardians during their first school year.
“The kids love them,” Mullen said. “It’s been a home run for me.”
But the additional and yearly price tag of roughly $500,000 for the district’s protectors is having school officials look closer at district coffers.
“It’s working exceptionally well,” Bishop said, “but it does come with a cost.”
County school board members opted in March to participate in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, a school-safety measure Florida lawmakers established following the deadly February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.
District officials are using the non-sworn guardians to support the school resource officers (SROs) of the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office who already patrol 21 district campuses, minus the Academy of Environmental Sciences.
Guardians are also able to shift their positions around the 22 schools to protect against threats or cover large public functions, such as when fathers took their children to school on Wednesday.
“It gives us flexibility to where our needs our most,” Bishop said.
Sheriff’s officials agreed to certify the district’s guardian candidates through the mandated background screenings and 144 hours of training this summer.
With the help of outside agencies, School Safety Specialist and Police Chief Buddy Grant then put his graduated guardians through another 150 hours of active-shooter and first-aid instruction.
Bishop said he would bet his next 10 paychecks the school district’s guardians, who have a combined 183 years of police and/or military experience, are the best compared to the other 36 county school districts that also hired guardians.
“Our guardians are much better trained than any other guardian in the state of Florida, bar none,” he said, adding that Grant will continue to train the guardians over summers.
For this school year, according to Bishop, the district paid roughly $1.6 million to fund security projects, pay for guardians and chip in towards the current $2.4 million contract with the sheriff’s office for SROs.
County commissioners put in $1.4 million to help the district pay for the SROs.
State lawmakers allocated around $1 million to district for school safety and security, but Mullen said if the Legislature’s contributions don’t keep up with what it mandates, the district will have to keep digging into reserves.
“If the school safety and security money doesn’t keep pace with inflation, I don’t know how it’s going to support that over the years,” Mullen said. “I know that money shouldn't’ play a factor, but ... if you can’t pay people, it’ll play a factor in this at some point in time.”
When it comes to dealing with potential attacks, the district’s workload is getting larger and manpower is stretched because new state policies have it laser-focused on responding to threats, even if it’s a student jokingly telling another they’re going to kill them.
“Kids have got to understand that if you’re not going to say it at the airport, don’t say it at school,” Mullen said.
Mullen said 84 threat assessments have or are being reviewed since the start of this school year, and the district will keep encouraging children, parents and staff to report suspicious activity.
District officials said they also have to acknowledge education’s other expenses, like teacher pay, which have been overshadowed by funding priorities for school safety.
Bishop and Mullen said the state also can’t simply raise its base salary for teachers because it will put more financial hardships on school districts.
It would also be unfair to the veteran educators, who taught for years at a lower salary, only to have the same pay rate as an incoming teacher, the assistant superintendents noted.
Mullen said he’s worried state officials will keep requiring districts to teach hourly lessons to students that go beyond their normal curriculum, like they do now with drug abuse and human trafficking, forcing more district money to pay to train their short-staffed instructors.
“I’m not opposed to these measures, but it’s going to be costly,” Mullen said. “If we’re going to have to do that, something else is going to have to go.”