Florida Schools Grapple With Student Safety, Tax Hikes, Lawsuits, Teacher Pay and Mental Health

With the beginning of the school year, more than ever before, many issues are plaguing students, parents, teachers and education leaders across Florida.

These issues include school safety. Over the summer, a state commission found that many schools were behind on implementing safety measures. In July, the Florida Department of Education found only 34 of the state’s 67 school districts were participating in the Guardian Program.

“Guardians are armed personnel who aid in the prevention or abatement of active assailant incidents on school premises. They are either school employees who volunteer to serve in addition to official job duties or personnel hired for the specific purpose of serving as a school guardian,” the state Department of Education notes on its website.

While many school districts throughout the state insist they are moving forward with the Guardian Program, earlier this year, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri complained they weren’t moving fast enough when it came to school safety.

Some of the current debates over school safety come down to costs, including whether school boards should have their own police forces or rely on local law enforcement to provide security.

On another front, tax increases and lawsuits are also front and center for some school districts. Some school districts are trying to win over voters for new tax increases and are even trying to get these proposals on the ballot later this year.

Some districts point to crumbling schools and outdated maintenance facilities and insist they can’t wait for 2020, claiming they need money this year. But not all local governments are buying those claims.

In North Florida, the Clay County School Board sued the county commission over a proposed tax.  State law requires both governmental parties to agree on a date when the proposed tax will be placed on the ballot. The school board wanted the proposed tax to be brought before voters this year but, last week, a judge said the county commission has the power to decide when the vote should be held.

Next door in Duval County, the Jacksonville City Council has turned down a proposal by the county school board on having a special election this year for a proposed tax increase to help fund schools.

Over the past few years, some local districts have blamed the lack of school funding on Republicans in the Florida Legislature and the economy, including the Great Recession. But, according to Florida TaxWatch, these claims don’t pass muster.

Florida TaxWatch staffers told Florida Daily that more money is going to students. Florida TaxWatch also noted, with the readjustment in property value evaluations every year, local school districts are garnering revenue.

Teacher retention and salaries remain hot issues in Florida especially as Gov. Ron DeSantis has focused on attracting new teachers and retaining current ones.

But recent date from the Florida Dept of Education shows that salaries being paid to many teachers are less than the state average. The average salary for a schoolteacher in Florida is around $48,500, but several districts are paying less than that.

Union County in North Florida, for example, has an average salary of only $40,246. In more populous Volusia County in Central Florida, the average salary was only $45,584.

Mental health issues also becoming more on an issue facing educators in Florida. Starting this year, Florida public schools will be required to teach five hours of mental health instruction to students from 6th -12th grades. Proponents say the program will help students identity problems their classmates may be dealing with in areas like depression, suicide, cyberbullying and the impacts of substance abuse.

“Mental health education will be a useful tool for all students,” said Ben Gibson, a state board member appointed by then Gov. Rick Scott.

Though the program isn’t due until December, several school districts haven’t released their own program material on what exactly will be taught.

Florida Radio Network analyst Ron Davis said the issues facing schools across Florida will pose a major challenge in the new school year.

“With all these issues staring us right in the face, it’s like the perfect storm,” said Davis.

Davis also said he is worried that all of these changes will impact teachers and put a strain on dealing with students in the classroom.

“When it comes to students, parent and teachers, yes, there is a lot on the table for us this year,” said Dr. Diana Greene, the superintendent of the Duval School schools.

 

Reach Ed Dean at ed.dean@floridadaily.com.

 

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