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Education

Broward officials say 600 school staff jobs are at risk if voters don't approve tax referendum

Police officer speaking with a young student in the hallway.
Joshua Polson
/
The Greeley Tribune via AP
In this file photo, a police officer speaks with a young student in a hallway.

The jobs of 600 school safety officers and mental health providers could disappear. Officials with Broward County Public Schools say those are the stakes if voters don’t approve a tax referendum on the ballot this August.

“If this does not pass, we immediately lose funding on July 1, 2023 for 500 safety personnel and 100 mental health personnel for our students. Along with the loss of supplements for our school staff,” BCPS Deputy Superintendent Judith Marte said.

“Sunsetting of these dollars would eliminate campus monitors at all of our elementary schools,” Marte added. “Completely eliminate them.”

The district is asking county residents to renew a property tax increase that voters first approved in 2018. According to district estimates, the measure would net an additional $227 million a year for BCPS, $45 million of which must be shared with charter schools in the county.

“It’s imperative that we have to have the good, the bad and the ugly conversation with the public so they clearly understand that this is not just a wishlist. This is a necessity,” board Vice Chair Patricia Good said.

On Tuesday, the school board approved a plan to spend at least 75% of the referendum funds on increasing staff pay. Up to 17% percent would go towards school safety efforts and up to 8% would be spent on mental health and other essential services.

BCPS Superintendent Cartwright had initially proposed the district spend up to 18% on school safety and 7% on mental health, but board members opted to increase the mental health allocation, a move proposed by board Chair Laurie Rich Levinson.

While the ballot language specifies that the funds will be spent on school resource officers, safety staff, mental health providers and staff pay increases, the percentages are not binding and the board could adjust them in the future.

The district is asking voters to increase the property tax rate from a half mill to one mill. BCPS officials say increasing the rate is needed in order to compete with neighboring schools in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, which both have higher millage rates.

According to BCPS, the measure would cost $23 a month for the average homeowner and $13 a month for the average condo owner. Lisa Maxwell, who leads the Broward Principals’ and Assistants’ Association, says the extra funding is desperately needed.

“We are holding things together with gum and shoelaces and without these additional resources for safety and security and for mental health services for our students, we are going to be in a world of hurt,” Maxwell said.

Board hires two top administrators to oversee safety and cybersecurity

Four years after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, BCPS will once again have a permanent chief safety and security officer. At Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved hiring Jaime Alberti, who previously served as a police commander in Orange County Public Schools.

Leo Nesmith had been serving as BCPS’s interim security chief, following the resignation of Brian Katz in 2021. Multiple law enforcement officials were involved in selecting Alberti for the job, including Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

Josiah Phillips will serve as the district’s new chief information officer, overseeing technology services and cybersecurity, which is a concern for BCPS. From November 2020 to March 2021, hackers carried out a ransomware attack against the district, stealing the personal data of students and teachers. According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, some 50,000 people may have been affected.

It’s been a top priority of Cartwright’s to fill leadership posts in the district, following a string of resignations in recent years.

“Both of these positions are critical positions. When you get to a cabinet-level position, it is as though they are the CEOs for the departments for which they operate. They have multiple personnel underneath them,” Cartwright said. “Hence the salary is always commensurate.”

Phillips was the chief information officer for Volusia County Schools. According to board documents, the salaries of both Phillips and Alberti will increase by tens of thousands of dollars, compared to their past roles in Central Florida schools. According to board documents, Phillips is slated to make $190,000, up from $135,000. Alberti will be paid $178,500, more than doubling his previous salary of $86,000.

Board approves resolution in support of LGBTQ staff and students

On Tuesday, board members also formally voiced their support for LGBTQ students, teachers and staff in the district, by passing a resolution opposing House Bill 1557, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last month.

The Parental Rights in Education law, which opponents have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” bans classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and in other grades if it’s not considered age or developmentally appropriate.

BCPS prides itself on being an inclusive environment and a trailblazer on LGBTQ issues.

“This proclamation is about love and compassion for our LGBTQ students, employees and community in the midst of a despicable and constant attack at the state level," said board member Sarah Leonardi, who sponsored the resolution. “We see you, we love you, we support you and we will fight for you.”