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Police chief says Broward district isn't paying its school resource officers

 Like districts across the country, Palm Beach County schools has struggled to fill vacancies in its police department. Now the district is turning to the county sheriff's office for help.
Joshua Polson
/
The Greeley Tribune via AP
Like districts across the country, Palm Beach County schools has struggled to fill vacancies in its police department. Now the district is turning to the county sheriff's office for help.

The Broward County school district contracts with local law enforcement agencies to have a school resource officer (SRO) on every campus. But the district isn't paying the bill for those services, according to one local police chief.

Eight months into the academic year, law enforcement agencies in Broward County are still waiting for the school district to reimburse them for the work of their school resource officers (SRO). A local police chief says the lack of payment is taking a toll – and is warning the district to not take the services for granted.

In the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, state lawmakers required districts to have a school safety officer on every single campus.

In order to comply, Broward County Public Schools relies on local police forces – contracting with 200 officers from municipalities like Coral Springs, Fort Lauderdale and Pembroke Pines – as well as the Broward Sheriff’s Office, to make sure there’s an SRO at every school.

But the district hasn’t been paying them this year, according to Hollywood Police Chief Chris O’Brien. In the meantime, he says it’s fallen to municipalities to cover the previously-agreed upon amount of $61,200 per SRO.

“As we sit here today, nearly eight months into the school year, we do not have an agreement in place. And it does not look like we'll have an agreement in place anytime soon,” O’Brien told the school board during a meeting this week.

O’Brien said that it’s not uncommon for the district to not ink out an SRO contract with municipalities until two or three months into the school year.

"If our students and staff don't come home, nothing else matters. So we have to put our money where our mouth is.”
Debbi Hixon, vice chair of the board of Broward County Public Schools

But between the campaign for a bond referendum to raise additional funds for district staffing and school safety, the departure of the former superintendent and the appointment of an interim one, O’Brien says negotiations on this year’s contract have fallen to the wayside.

“What we have now is not a partnership,” he said. “The communications have broken down. There's no sense of urgency.”

During the meeting, board members expressed frustration over how staff had handled the negotiations. Board Vice Chair Debbi Hixon’s husband Chris was murdered trying to stop the Parkland shooter.

“It doesn't feel right that our resource officers don't feel like they're partners with us in this,” Hixon said. “If our students and staff don't come home, nothing else matters. So we have to put our money where our mouth is.”

Law enforcement officers have been asking for a three-year contract, in which BCPS would reimburse the municipalities for 100% of the officers’ salary costs — approximately $103,000 per SRO — as well as pay the salaries of one supervisor for each seven officers.

Ultimately, board members expressed support for increasing the reimbursement rate for SROs to between $72,500 and $80,000 and committing to a three-year contract, which they said they hope will provide stability and help mend the relationship between the district and its officers.

"We really need safety and security. That's not negotiable … at the same time, we're really living in the wild, wild West now in terms of budgeting."
Board Member Allen Zeman

But Board Member Allen Zeman acknowledged that the district’s budget could look significantly different in the coming years, in the wake of a new state law establishing universal school vouchers – which an outside group estimates could cost the state billions of dollars.

“We really need safety and security. That's not negotiable … at the same time, we're really living in the wild, wild West now in terms of budgeting,” Zeman said. “We have great ambiguity now and uncertainty about what our budget is going to look like, even in the very near term.”

Still, O’Brien — the police chief — warned that BCPS shouldn’t become complacent about the work that SROs do and the risks that they shoulder every day, at a time when this country continues to be plagued by an epidemic of gun violence — a reality Broward County residents know excruciatingly well.

“Municipalities are just really fed up with the process, because it is not a true partnership,” O’Brien said. “That is a big assumption and a risk that the district is making by assuming that the cities are going to come back and continue to provide these resources.”

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As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.
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