State Sen. Janet Cruz is hoping to convince state lawmakers to direct unused funds from a school funding appropriation stemming from the tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School toward other school safety measures not included in the original appropriation.
Cruz, as well as House Sponsor Rep. Tina Polsky, admit the effort is a long shot.
At issue is the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program that established a $67 million pool of funding for school districts that opted in to the program for training educators and certain school staff to carry firearms in schools.
As of last May, $50 million of that appropriation had not been claimed. However, some school districts, mostly those in rural areas, have joined the Guardian Program.
Responding to criticism from those who worried arming teachers was a bad idea, the Legislature made the program optional for school districts. Many districts, including some of the state’s largest school districts like Miami-Date and Hillsborough counties.
That left money that would have gone to those districts unappropriated.
“We have a responsibility to allow these leftover funds to be used by our school districts to protect our children immediately,” Polsky said.
The bills would allow schools to use the funds not for training teachers and staff to carry weapons, but to harden schools or pay for additional school resource officers. Funds would be distributed to districts based on size.
However, the bills are unlikely to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, as both Cruz and Polsky noted in an announcement about their legislation.
Polsky described the school Guardian effort as an effort to pass a less expensive way to adhere to the state’s requirement that all schools have armed security on campus but called the effort a “gross misuse” of taxpayer funds.
Under the 2019 Guardian Program, schools that did not opt in to the program didn’t receive any of the school safety funding but still had to adhere to the armed security requirement — what some districts considered an unfunded mandate from the state.
Lawmakers have been grappling with school safety issues since the Valentine’s Day shooting in 2018 that claimed the lives of 17 people, 14 of whom were students. The Guardian Program was named after one of the victims, Feis, a coach who died saving students.
There was unanimous consent that schools needed to be safer, but opinions on how to do that varied mostly along party lines with Democrats favoring gun control legislation, hardened schools and better safety education and Republicans seeking to put more firepower in the hands of trained individuals to protect people on campus in the event of an active shooter situation.
Asked about the leftover Guardian funds last month, Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis, said “Guardian funds are not sitting idle.,” adding that applications for the program “continue to roll in and are being processed.”