Tighter school security will cost a bundle
District leaders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties said the new guidelines will require a massive mobilization to fingerprint construction workers building additions, and sports officials and vendors selling yearbooks and class rings at school -- all before the law goes into effect Sept. 1.
Across the state, thousands of those workers will be required to submit fingerprints to the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
''I do think the law is very clear on that issue,'' said Pamela Stewart, a deputy chancellor with the Department of Education, who said she ''couldn't even begin to try to estimate'' the number of workers who will be affected.
Spokesmen in Miami-Dade and Broward were also unable to provide estimates, but both districts said it would be a major undertaking.
''We're talking about thousands of people who interact with our schools,'' said Miami-Dade spokesman Joseph Garcia. ``That number will increase as we have more and more construction sites.''
The background checks were required by the Jessica Lunsford Act, a law signed this year by Gov. Jeb Bush to tighten monitoring and punishment of sexual offenders. It was named for the the 9-year-old Homosassa girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered this year, allegedly by a convicted sex offender who did construction work at her school.
''It seems extreme, but it might be necessary,'' said Eileen Segal, president of the Dade County Council PTA/PTSA. ``It may be difficult for the construction company, but if they are going to be around the children every single day, I think they have to be checked.''
$65 PER SCREENING
District contractors, especially builders, have worried about the cost: Background checks cost more than $65 per person.
''The really unfortunate thing about this is that this money will come directly out of every child's classroom,'' said Miami-Dade School Board member Evelyn Greer.
Moreover, some builders said their employees would go to another project rather than risk exposing previous crimes or uncertain immigration status. South Florida's real estate boom provides plenty of options.
Advocates have applauded the law and said districts should avoid putting a price tag on children's safety.
''They've got to get beyond the inconvenience and cost,'' Rep. Dick Kravitz, one of the bill's sponsors, said in an interview with The Herald last month. ``What's more precious than one little kid?''
The background checks are supposed to be completed by Sept. 1; many large districts have been scrambling to comply while also hoping for a narrow interpretation of the law. For example, some leaders hoped to exempt construction workers if their work site was fenced off from the rest of the school.
''We fence our construction zone off and keep everyone out of the area where the kids are,'' said Jim Hewett, president of Hewett-Kier Construction, which is managing an $8 million renovation to Eugenia B. Thomas Elementary in Doral. ``We've been doing school construction for 28 years and never had a problem.''
But the guidance issued Monday was broad, including anyone who could access any school property when children are present. At a meeting last week, Greer said such a strict interpretation could ``grind the system to a halt.''
''I think it's going to be quite massive,'' said Associate Superintendent Freddie Woodson, who said the district hopes to issue a formal position statement and possibly an implementation plan before the School Board's monthly meeting on Wednesday.
The only obvious exceptions are drivers for UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service, which do not have contracts with the district. They, too, would require screening if the district signed a bulk-services deal to get lower prices.
The rules do not apply to unpaid volunteers, who are already screened under different rules. But the law does require checking sports referees, vending-machine suppliers and people who hawk class rings and other school memorabilia.
''We will be in full compliance at the request of the state of Florida,'' said Julie Goetz, communications manager for Jostens, the Minneapolis company that sells yearbooks, diplomas and other mementos. ``We support the [law] and feel the costs are worthwhile.''
She would not disclose how many Jostens salespeople visit South Florida schools and said the company will negotiate the costs of background checks with individual districts.
Broward district leaders said they want lawmakers to revisit the rule during the spring legislative session and possibly provide alternatives to fingerprinting.
''I don't think we're putting the children in harm's way if we put in a fenced-in area [for construction workers] or provide supervision directly over those persons,'' said Broward district spokesman Keith Bromery.
WHO DOES SCREENING
The new guidelines require the districts themselves to conduct the screenings, rather than leaving it to contractors. They also instruct districts to use identification cards, sign-in logs, checkpoints or other methods to ensure only prescreened workers have access to schools.
Districts can share screening results -- a vendor who was checked in Miami-Dade would not need a separate check in Broward -- but the state is not planning to build a database of workers who have been checked.
Each county must develop its own list of crimes that exclude a worker from coming on school property, so the state guidelines say a database would not be feasible.
''I see where people think you go overboard in an effort to be safe,'' said Kravitz, R-Orange Park. 'But if it happens one time that somebody's little boy or girl gets lifted by one of these [school] contractors, then we'll all wring our hands and say, `How could this happen?' ''