Florida charter schools face tough decisions to afford new school safety laws

- The plan was to have new textbooks and a computer for every student this year at the Hope and Legacy Schools in Winter Garden.

By the early August start of class though, and that money had to go somewhere else: paying for security officers.

"Obviously we had to make some sacrifices to afford an off-duty, time and a half officer,” said school CEO Crystal Yoakum.

As a public school, Hope and Legacy have to now have armed security on their campus. It’s the main provision of the school safety act signed into law after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

However, as a charter school it’s proving a lot easier said than done. The school gets state funding through the safe schools program but that money’s based on enrollment numbers, and their much smaller than most schools numbers didn’t get them very far.

"At first we thought we were going to be working with the district and we would be supplied an officer,” said Yoakum.

When that didn’t happen the charter school worked with the Winter Garden Police to get a rotating roster of off-duty cops to come into the school each day.  Their funds barely began to cover that bill, so they had to cut those planned improvements for the year to cover the rest.

Hope and Legacy aren’t alone.  Lynn Norman-Teck, Executive Director of the Florida Charter School Alliance said charter schools across the state were largely left out of the school resource officer discussion; despite being required to provide them this year. As a result, she said those schools have had to take extra cost cutting measures to comply with the law.

The advocacy group has already started discussions with state legislators about the future of Florida’s school safety law. Norman-Teck said the law had to come together fast for this school year, but she hopes the new legislative session brings changes to it that will help all schools better handle the requirements; especially the small, thinly stretched charter schools.

"These are public school kids,” said Norman-Teck. "We're talking about 300,000 students statewide in the K-12 public charter schools. They have to be part of the conversation."

Norman-Teck said the state’s charter schools were largely hoping on utilizing school guardian programs which tend to be much cheaper than hiring actual officers, but only a handful of Florida sheriffs elected to start such programs.

The alternative of deputies and officers, she said, usually costs between $80,000 and more than $100,000 per year; about the salary of a principal in many cases.

However, Yoakum’s school, like the other charters in the state have found a way to make it happen this school year. As for next year and beyond: she just hopes the legislature gives them a hand before the next round of hard decisions.

After all, she said this is all new territory, especially in the charter school landscape where, until recently, armed security on campus wasn’t even a thought for her.

"No. No, not required,” said Yoakum, “but society's changing."

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