Texas lawmakers’ response to the state’s deadliest school shooting is a sweeping piece of legislation that mandates armed personnel on every campus.
But how all school districts will find and pay for security officers – along with other required safety upgrades – could be challenging. The Legislature barely raised the amount of money per student it will provide campuses to implement such measures.
Schools will get $10 per student to use for safety costs, marking a 28-cent increase from what districts received last year. In addition, each campus will get a $15,000 allotment.
District leaders asked for substantially more money, which they said was necessary to cover both the cost of hardening their campuses and of treating the root causes of violence, including mental health problems.
Joining school officials in their disappointment are the families of the Uvalde victims, who begged the Legislature to pass stricter gun laws. Their pleas were rejected.
The much smaller amount is frustrating, leaders say, when the state started the legislative session with a $33 billion surplus. Bills that would’ve paid for teacher raises and boosted the base amount schools receive for educating each child died at the end of the regular session.
“When it rains, it pours, only the sad thing is, we have umbrellas and nobody’s allowing us to use those umbrellas,” Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said. “I can’t believe that all of this is pouring on the children of public schools.”
Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said he was proud of the final product and the amount of money funneled into school safety.
The legislation changed dramatically in the final days to shape it into something the House and Senate could agree on.
“This bill is the best product I think we’ve had thus far,” Burrows said.
The Legislature separately set aside more than $1 billion for the Texas Education Agency, which officials can dole out to the state’s more than 1,000 districts in the form of school safety grants over two years.
This money can help districts pay for new agency requirements like panic buttons, specific fencing, two-way radios and other costly facilities upgrades intended to keep children and teachers safer.
District leaders must set their budgets for next school year in June and some are worried about how to pay for the rules set out by the Legislature.
“The funding accompanying the armed guard mandate appears to be significantly less than the current actual cost of providing a trained peace officer in each school,” Richardson ISD Superintendent Tabitha Branum said in a statement. “Our district adopted a deficit operating budget in 2022-23 and anticipates doing so again for 2023-24 in order to provide a pay increase for teachers and staff.”
The new $15,000 per campus stipend would generate about $3.4 million for Dallas ISD. But there are roughly 140 elementary schools in the district without an armed security officer.
The average cost of one school resource officer is $85,000 annually, Elizalde said. Back-of-the-napkin math showed the superintendent she needed to find about $9 million more to pay for the additional officers.
Already throughout last school year, she said, DISD juggled several vacancies in its existing police roster.
“Even if I find the money, where do I find the people?” Elizalde said.
Not only has the Dallas Police Department struggled to hire officers, but districts will now be in competition with each other to fill additional slots.
The legislation lays out ways districts can work around the requirement for an armed security officer. School boards can claim an exemption should they not have enough funding or personnel.
Instead, they must turn to alternative ways to satisfy the requirement. State law already allows other school staff – who are not sworn officers – to carry guns on campus through a “marshal” program and a “guardian” program. Chosen teachers and other campus personnel can go through training and bring weapons on campus, but districts don’t disclose who is armed.
Elizalde said that is not something she wants in DISD.
More than 370 armed officers responded to Robb Elementary on the day a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers. Four years earlier, during the Parkland, Fla., school massacre, an armed school resource officer never went inside the high school or engaged the gunman.
“Is this going to be the thing that keeps our kids safe? I certainly don’t need to remind folks in Uvalde that there were hundreds of officers on-site and we still had a massacre,” Elizalde said. “I’m not saying that any of our officers would do that, but there’s just no guarantee.”
Before adding police to elementary schools, Elizalde said she would have liked to host community conversations with parents to gauge their comfort level with such a plan.
Civil rights groups have expressed fear that adding more armed personnel in schools could have a negative impact on children of color, as well as students with disabilities.
“The bottom line is, more guns in schools do not protect us from targeted school violence. It just makes us less safe,” said Paige Duggins-Clay, of the Intercultural Development Research Association.
Republican lawmakers often argue that the thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Proponents want someone carrying on campus to cut down on emergency response times.
“We need to prevent the next Uvalde or any shooting,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian.
He also disagreed with the assertion the Legislature was setting an unfunded mandate, saying the budget includes more than $1 billion overall for school safety.
The school safety bill makes a number of other changes and gives the Texas Education Agency added oversight authority.
State officials must monitor the implementation of the new school safety requirements and test how districts are complying.
If a school district fails to meet certain rules, the state can step in with a conservator to supervise them.
The education agency must also develop standards for how parents should be notified about violence that has occurred or is being investigated on campuses.
And districts must provide state officials and local law enforcement with accurate maps of their buildings. This could chip away at logistical confusion for first responders.
Every school district must also require employees who regularly interact with students to go through an “evidence-based mental health training program.”
Though lawmakers named school safety a priority after the Uvalde massacre, they did not pass the bill advocated by parents of the slain children.
The families lobbied passionately every week during the session to raise the minimum age to own an AR-style rifle.
If such a law were in place last year, the teenage gunman would not have been legally able to purchase his weapons.
Sen. Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, voted against the school safety bill, saying it was an inadequate response. Campuses already have to do more with less, he said in a statement.
“Now we are going to add an unfunded mandate to have a security officer at every single public school,” he said. “It is sick and twisted that we have the largest budget surplus in Texas history and we aren’t doing a damn thing to keep our kids safe.”