Agenda Texas: Will Safety Bills Make Schools Safer?
The December school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut left the nation stunned and grief-stricken – and scared it could happen again.
Texas lawmakers have filed a handful of bills they say could increase security for students and peace of mind for parents. But some say those bills are more show than substance.
"A couple of bills are obviously just designed to appeal to the NRA while making it appear that they’re trying to make schools safer, when in fact they wouldn’t," says Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison.
Robison’s pet peeves include Lt. Governor David Dewhurst’s proposal to arm teachers or other school staff. Another bill, HB 1142, would create a gun safety class in schools including “instruction on the Second Amendment.”
Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) is proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow school districts to create a school security property tax.
“We believe that this is a Texas solution that’ll save lives without sacrificing our freedoms or trampling on our second amendment rights," Williams told reporters in January when he announced the bill.
The tax is separate from the current maintenance and operation tax we already pay. With one caveat:
"This is not part of the equalized funding program," Williams said. "This is outside of the maintenance and operation, which is equalized."
The state spends billions of dollars a year to equalize what districts get back in property taxes. A majority of school districts are suing over that, saying the state isn’t being equitable enough. Could a similar suit fall on safety funding?
Either way, the TSTA’s Robison isn’t sold on the proposal.
“Well this is still kind of another example of the legislature passing the buck to school funding to local school districts, which are already underfunded," Robison said.
He said many school districts had to raise property taxes to make up for the $5.4 billion in education cuts made by the legislature in 2011. And at some point, voters just won’t approve any more taxes.
What Improves Safety?
What do schools actually need to be safer? It’s an answer that changes based on which school district you ask.
One extremely rural ISD has decided to let teachers carry guns to school, since the closest sheriff’s deputy could be 30 minutes away on any given day. Austin Independent School District police Chief Eric Mendez says he has to balance the safety concerns of an urban district with the school's mission.
“Schools are designed, first of all, to be inviting, to be open, to be educational – for a student to be able to grow and be nurtured in that environment," Mendez says.
Mendez says parents don’t want to send their kid to a school built and run like a prison. It might be safer – but it’s not the best educational environment.
“However, we also have to be able to control the environment and control access," he says. "So who comes and goes and for the staff to be able to know who’s there."
To that end, AISD requires people to sign in and out of schools. And two district officers are stationed at every high school, and one at every middle school, with patrolling teams that cover elementary schools.
So what – if anything – would new legislation do to help out the Austin school district? Well – there is SB 509, which creates a local tax for school security.
“We do a pretty good job with the budget that we’re given now," Mendez says. "But could we make things better, change things up with added funding? Sure."
Which circles back to the question of just how much new money lawmakers are talking about: none from the state. Although SB 509 could bring some schools millions – districts with low property values might not be able to generate enough tax revenue to hire a single officer.