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School leaders say Texas’ campus safety funding doesn’t cover new state mandates

 A lockdown device hangs on the wall inside a classroom at Nimitz Middle School on Sept. 13, 2023, in Odessa.
Eli Hartman
The Texas Tribune
A lockdown device hangs on the wall inside a classroom at Nimitz Middle School on Sept. 13, 2023, in Odessa.

A bill to increase the state’s support for school safety appears stalled in this month’s special legislative session. But even if it passes, superintendents warn it isn’t enough.

State legislators made school safety a top priority this year after 19 students and two teachers died in the 2022 Uvalde school shooting. But even after they passed a sweeping bill on the topic this May, schools have been raising the alarm that the $1.4 billion approved to fund the new initiatives doesn’t go nearly far enough.

School districts are now worried that political fighting over vouchers might prevent them from getting additional help.

House Bill 3, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, requires school districts to develop active-shooter plans and mandates mental health training for certain employees. It also provides funds for schools to install silent panic buttons in classrooms and requires each campus to have an armed guard present during school hours.

All those measures created new costs for schools already dealing with high inflation, a challenging labor market and a disappointing end to this year's regular legislative session, in which a measure that would have sent schools an additional $4.5 billion fell victim to squabbling between the Texas House and Senate over voucher programs.

Many school officials have said the $10 per student and $15,000 per campus that each district got for school safety expenses doesn’t go far enough to cover what for many districts includes the need to hire new full-time personnel at each school.

When safety measures like protective fencing are mandated by the state, the limited number of vendors who offer the service greatly increase prices, said Craig Bessent, a Texas School Safety Center board member appointed by Abbott. This creates an issue for smaller school districts that spend most of the funding they receive on other needs like school buses and teacher pay.

Hearne Independent School District Superintendent Adrain Johnson said his rural district has been forced to spend other funds on the new safety measures. In recent years, the district has made several safety upgrades, including adding metal detectors, silent panic buttons, new fencing and additional cameras to campuses.

In addition to increased safety measures, the district spends approximately $115,000 a year to pay for two officers, equipment, training and a vehicle for the district’s campuses.

“It's disappointing that we didn't get the funding to do it at a level that doesn't hurt the district, and allows us to keep most of our funding dedicated to the education of children,” he said.

Last month, Abbott called lawmakers back for a special legislative session, urging them to pass his top legislative priority: a school voucher program that would create a way for Texas parents to use state dollars to pay for their children’s private school tuition or home-schooling expenses.

The Senate has already passed Senate Bill 2, a companion measure meant to provide additional funding for school districts to support teacher pay and safety measures. That bill would double the per-student school safety allotment to $20 and increase the per-campus allotment to $30,000. It would also clarify who qualifies as an armed security officer required to be on each campus.

But the state constitution says lawmakers can only pass bills on topics designated by the governor in a special session, and so far Abbott has not added school safety funding to his agenda. He has indicated a willingness to consider school finance as an issue later this session, but only after a voucher bill passes. That seems uncertain, given sustained opposition in the House.

The House has not taken any action on the Senate bill yet, and a House proposal appears similarly stuck. The special session must end by Nov. 7.

But even if SB 2 were to pass, many schools say it wouldn’t be enough. Dallas ISD Chief Operations Officer David Bates said installing some safety measures would still be financially difficult for the large urban school district. Paying an armed guard can cost $65,000 to $70,000 per campus, Bates said.

“To go from $15,000 to $30,000 per campus would be a big lift, but still misses the mark by about 50%,” he said.

Safety measures mandated by the Legislature are an added financial burden for the district on top of recapture payments and declining enrollment, Bates said. To continue to upgrade and install safety measures, the district will have to draw funds from its savings account, as it often has done in the past.

Meanwhile, for Khang Ngo, a junior at Clear Brook High School south of Houston, the measures being implemented — including the hiring of four police officers — are a stressful reminder of being a student in the age of school shootings.

“I feel like the guards just set in stone the reality even more,” Ngo said. “It's apparent now that we need more police officers in order to make sure we're safe.”

But Ngo said he doesn’t feel much safer going to school and fears no amount of increased safety is enough.

“I’m still scared that someday, someone will come in and shoot at my school,” he said. “After all, these other schools had all these security changes implemented and they still had shootings, so why can’t mine?”

Bessent, the school safety board member, said Texas leaders have continued to make the security of students a priority.

“The state of Texas is one of the leading states in school safety,” he said. “They're very proactive, our legislators have supported us, Gov. Abbott has supported us. … No one ever said it was going to be a fast and easy process. We have to keep going, we have to keep working at it even in times when we don't have a school safety bill.”

Johnson, the Hearne superintendent, said he hopes his district can work collaboratively with the state to come up with a plan that helps it carry out these measures without an overbearing cost on the district and the taxpayers.

In the meantime, Johnson said the district will continue to do everything it can to protect students.

“It's not going to stop us,” he said. “We're going to do what we can, all we can do for the safety of our students. That's our number one priority, along with educating our kids.”

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Caroline Wilburn | The Texas Tribune