FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – As lawmakers grapple with how much money school districts will get in the upcoming biennial budget to make their buildings safer, some are already well on their way toward complying with last year’s School Safety and Resiliency Act.
Officials with Fayette County Public Schools, Owensboro Independent Schools and Paducah Independent Schools testified Wednesday before the House’s budget review subcommittee on K-12 education and shared their districts' efforts to comply with the new school safety law that took effect last year.
School districts are being asked to not only beef up the physical security of their buildings, but also provide greater counseling and mental health resources to students under the new law.
Exactly how much monetary help the state will provide in those efforts remains to be seen. Legislators have promised to include school safety funding in the upcoming budget that will be passed this year.
"How much that's going to be and how it's going to be I'm not sure yet, but we'll be in those discussions," said Rep. Steve Riley, a Glasgow Republican who chairs the House budget review subcommittee on education. "… You really can't put a dollar figure on the value of human life and students. It's just impossible to do that."
The Kentucky School Boards Association has estimated that districts will need $18 million to improve facilities and $121 million more annually to cover the costs associated with school resource officers and counselors.
Those who presented during Wednesday's meeting indicated that they've already begun taking steps locally to comply with the new school safety law.
Efforts to improve school security began at Fayette County Public Schools, for example, started after shootings at Marshall County High School on Jan. 23, 2018, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, weeks later, said Joe Isaacs, director of risk management and safety for FCPS.
A safety advisory council empaneled by FCPS Superintendent Manny Caulk ultimately recommended a 10-point plan to improve security at schools in Fayette County that included provisions like issuing photo identification to students and staff, upgrading emergency communications systems, bringing more law enforcement officers and mental health professionals into schools, installing metal detectors at district high schools, and monitoring social media activity more closely, Isaacs said.
At Paducah Independent, school leaders have taken steps to manage visitor access at its buildings and improve access to health services for its students through partnerships with four agencies that have presences in every school at no cost to the district, said Troy Brock, director of pupil personnel.
Brock told reporters after Wednesday's meeting that Paducah Independent will need financial help from the state, primarily for security upgrades at its buildings.
"A lot of our buildings were built in 1955, 1939, and don’t have a lot of the same security that modern buildings have today, so yes, absolutely we're looking for additional funding to implement Senate Bill 1 completely," Brock said.
Staffing is another area where district leaders say help is needed from the state.
The new school safety law requires districts to hire or contract with enough school resource officers, as funding and personnel are available, to provide one for every school. Likewise, districts must also have enough counselors on staff so that there's one for every 250 students.
Owensboro Independent Schools has adjusted its budget to free up money for a school resource officer at Owensboro Middle School, said Chris Gaddis, the district’s director of security operations.
But Gaddis says the district has encountered a problem that others likely have as well: Law enforcement agencies are running out of officers they can place in schools.
"Right now we’ve got internal funds to cover a police officer or a school resource officer at our middle school, but our own police department is not in a position to release an officer off the street," he said.
That problem could be exacerbated in other more rural areas of the state with small police forces, Gaddis said.
"We’re very fortunate that we have a community that supports everything our school district does, but it is a concern when we look at some of our outlying counties and very small, rural areas that don’t have the resources," he said. "They may have a sheriff’s department of three or four total, and so to ask them to split the cost of a resource officer, that would be impossible."
Asked how much more Owensboro Independent Schools needs to come into complete compliance with the new school safety law, Gaddis couldn't come up with an exact amount, in part because of the recurring expenses associated with hiring additional counseling staff.
"To put a dollar figure to that, I’m scared to even go there," he said.
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