CINCINNATI -- In an era marred by mass school shootings and safety threats, the strength of security measures at some southwest Ohio schools could depend on what taxpayers decide at the polls this November.
An increasing number of local school districts are budgeting for school safety in their upcoming levies and bond issues, and some say there’s no other way for their districts to address potential security flaws without receiving extra taxpayer dollars.
“If we don’t pass, we’re not going to be able to make the needed physical improvements for safety,” said Mike Sander, superintendent of Franklin City Schools.
Deadly school shootings -- from Columbine and Virginia Tech to Newtown and Chardon more recently -- have amplified the issue of school safety for administrators and parents alike. It's also an issue that draws strong opinion.
“Every time an unfortunate situation happens like Newtown, it raises concern and people go back and review everything,” Sander said. “Nobody wants to mess around with student safety.”
Safety Upgrades Part of Many Local Levies, Bond Issues
More than 160 local school issues will appear on ballots in Ohio this year, with 14 before local voters. Some school districts are using those issues to explicitly ask for funds to make safety improvements, and even more intend to make safety changes and additions out of their general fund.
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That’s what the Franklin City School District is doing. The Warren County district is asking voters to approve a 7.92 mill operating levy, which would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $227 per year in taxes.
The levy would generate almost $3.1 million to be pumped into the district’s general operating fund, and Sanders said a portion of that money would be used to redesign the district’s buildings to prevent unwanted visitors from having access to the halls.
“Once you get into the building, you’re right in the hallway so you realistically have free reign to the building,” he said. “We want to add safety vestibules so you have to physically go the main office and then get buzzed into the regular school. It’s like a double security system.”
The district's idea is just that: They don't have a concrete plan because they won’t hire an architect to make changes unless that levy is approved this November.
If passed, Sanders said the money will also go to making other building improvements and restoring full-service kindergarten in the district.
“I think [safety] will help pass the levy,” he said. “When you talk about increasing student safety, that resonates with the community.”
Other Districts Asking Voters to Approve New Buildings
Some local school districts have deferred to bond issues to upgrade the security and update facilities at their schools. For districts like Middletown, Fairfield and Lebanon City Schools, advanced security would be part of construction on new buildings, if voters pass bond issues.
The three school districts are asking voters to cover a portion of total construction costs for the new buildings, as they are all recipients of a state grant through the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, which would foot a portion of their bills.
Gina Fletcher, a spokesperson for the Fairfield City School District, said the district’s $80.3 million plan to add three new buildings if the $61.3 million bond issue is approved is not directly correlated with the district’s safety needs.
“Our schools are secure and we do have measures in place, but we do have a need for newer buildings,” said Fletcher. “There’s always room for improvement.”
But the Lebanon City School District is highlighting the impact that a security upgrade would have on its students if their $27.4 million bond issue is approved.
'It's Not a Very Secure Building'
Lebanon school administrators have identified security flaws in the design of their aging school buildings, and say they intend to fix those if voters pass the bond issue.
The district’s California-style kindergarten and preschool buildings currently have no central hallways. Students must be directly escorted to their classrooms from the outside. The classrooms are also largely exposed, as large glass windows line the exterior walls of the entire building.
“If you did have a child, would you want your child sitting in a classroom where the entire outside wall is glass and aluminum? It’s not a very secure building, ” said Mark North, superintendent of Lebanon City Schools.
North said the district would stop using that building if the bond issue is passed and would add a kindergarten wing with a brick exterior to its first and second grade school building.
“We’ve not had a situation where someone has tried to forcefully enter the building, but things like Sandy Hook have triggered this,” he said. “If you wait until after it’s happened, it’s too late.”
He said the bond issue would also allow the district to expand its elementary school building, so the school could get rid of its four rented modular trailers that currently house more than 200 students in eight classrooms.
“Kids have to leave the trailers, walk outside and go to the main building for gym. We hold our music classes out in one of those trailers and then all of the kids from the trailers have to come inside for art and lunch,” he said.
Doing so, he said, exposes students to potential risk.
The district isn’t asking for the money for the purpose of safety improvements alone. He said generally, the buildings are outdated and too expensive to maintain.
The district decided to include the issue on the ballot after they were offered matching funds from the state.
“That’s really what drove this,” said North.
Lakota's Plan: More Security, Cameras, Alarm Upgrades
But school leaders in the Lakota Local School District are plainly asking voters to support their safety needs, and are reserving $6.3 million out of their the proposed $13.8 million tax levy for that purpose.
Randy Oppenheimer, district spokesperson for Lakota, said the school district plans to increase the number of safety resource officers at its school buildings from three to 10, if the levy is passed. He said it also plans to add better and more security cameras, improve school building entrances and upgrade current alarm systems.
“Before it was always a part of the regular operating budget, but the need for security has increased for our schools because of what we’ve seen happen at other schools like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown,” Oppenheimer said.
Oppenheimer declined to discuss specific details of the proposed security improvement plan or a breakdown of costs, citing that publicizing that information could pose another safety risk.
“We don’t release the plan because it goes into details about where every school building may be lacking security,” he said.
They remaining funds generated from the levy would cover the cost of technology enhancements, facility upkeep and maintenance and would restore some of the school district’s previously cut services.
Opponents: 'It's Not Cost Effective'
Some taxpayers are delighted at the inclusion of school safety in local levies and bond issues, but anti-levy supporters argue its districts are again using emotion to fund increases in general spending in daily operations.
“We have one incident in the country and suddenly thousands of school districts are spending millions of dollars to prevent these events from happening in their school district. It’s not cost effective,” said Graeme George, a staunch opponent of school tax levies and a member of the Lakota School District anti-levy group, No Lakota.
George said he does not support Lakota’s call for funds to support its security improvements, especially because he could not get a specific breakdown of the district’s plans.
The second-largest school district in the Tri-State hasn’t passed a levy in eight years. It lost three levies at the ballot in 2010 and 2011, and cut many of its services. Oppenheimer says it can’t easily fund its safety improvement plan without passage in November.
“We don’t have enough money to do all of this work unless we make major cuts elsewhere,” he said. “If this doesn’t pass….the needs will still be there and we will have fewer resources.”
But George and other anti-levy supporters say that’s all just a scare tactic used by districts to get voters to approve a larger issue by highlighting a small portion of the overall costs.
“I think too much of this levy is being targeted as improving the safety of our kids, and it’s just code words to scare people into if we don’t have this levy, our kids aren’t safe,” said George.
New State Measure Aimed at School Safety
But it could now be easier for local school districts to get taxpayer dollars for safety and security measures.
Tucked in the new state budget is a measure that allows Ohio school districts to ask voters for money specifically earmarked for school safety or security in a new type of levy, which some Ohio voters will see for the first time in November.
The Vermillion School District in northwest Ohio was the driving force behind this measure, as they approached their representatives with a proposal after school levies there repeatedly failed.
“In the past they tried to pass just general levies for operating purposes, but what they were hearing after Sandy Hook from individuals in their community was that they would be supportive of a levy if it was just for security purposes,” said Michelle Francis, deputy director of legislative services at the Ohio School Board Association.
That conversation led to the creation of Ohio Senate Bill 42, which passed the Ohio Senate in April and then moved on to the House. The measure was eventually added to the state budget before ever leaving the House.
“It’s another tool in the toolbox, if you will, for the local school district to make their schools and their children safer,” said Rick Amweg, director of safety and security a the Ohio Board of Regents and the Ohio Department of Education.
WCPO reviewed public election data provided by the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, which revealed that only one school district in the state has a safety-only levy on the November ballot.
It was unclear why that number was so low, but school districts like Lebanon, Fairfield and Middletown City Schools said they chose not to pursue the safety only option because they qualified for the state co-funded building construction grants instead.
Franklin City School District leaders say they want voters to fund more than just safety improvements for their schools
“The safety aspect is something that needs to be addressed, but we also need to address keeping our current staff, current programs that we have, and we just need to operate,” said Sander.
The same is true for the Lakota Local School District. Oppenheimer said they chose a combination levy because safety is only a small portion of their overall needs.
Warren County’s Wayne Local School District treasurer, Ron James, said safety is not included on their 14.05 tax levy because the district was able to absorb those costs without requiring additional taxpayer funds.
It's only been a few months since the state's budget was finalized, so Amweg said many school districts may not yet know much about their new taxing option.
"I'm sure there are many and varied reasons why districts [haven't used the option]. It gets back to the whole concept of wanting to keep this a local option and not be something that's administered through the state level," said Amweg.
But for the first time, some school safety funding resources will come from the state government. The Ohio legislature set aside $12 million in the 2013 budget bill for safety grants intended for local schools. Schools can use the funds to purchase radio communication systems or upgrade building entrances.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, which administers those grants, said the commission will begin accepting applications from local schools within the next few weeks.
With the now wide-range of choices that school districts have to fund their safety plans, many school leaders meet with consultants to help determine the best levy funding option to pursue.
Ernie Strawser, a consultant with Public Financing Resources, said his company works with about 200 clients to advice them on levy modeling and planning. In doing so, he recommends whether they should consider a bond issue, operating levy, permanent improvement levy or another plan.
He said he hasn't spoken to a school district about the new safety-only option, but expects to see it utilized more in future elections.
"Because of the school budgets being tight and just hard to have additional revenue, I think this will be a useful tool, but it's just very new right now," said Strawser. "Districts that have looked at safety and security issues in most cases look at it as part of their general operating levy. They're going to need a little more time to look at this specific levy type as one they might be able to use."
Election day in Ohio is Nov. 5 and early voting is now underway.
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Bob is WCPO's education reporter, highlighting what's working and what needs fixing from preschools to doctoral programs. A Cincinnati native, Bob was previously a regular contributor to the New York Times and was a staff reporter on many beats through 10 years at the Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post newspapers.