LINCOLN — A former school principal-turned-lawmaker offered a bill Friday that would help Nebraska schools pay for improved security.
Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski's bill would allow a supermajority vote of a school board to exceed the state levy limit by 1 cent. The measure would require that the additional money pay for updated surveillance cameras, more secure entrances or armed resource officers.
“People want to know their kids are in a safe, secure building,” said Kolowski, a former principal at Millard West High School. “Staff want to know they are in a safe, secure building.”
State law caps a school's property tax levy at $1.05 per $100 of valuation. Legislative Bill 346 would allow an additional cent.
Kolowski said he had been thinking of ways to help schools pay for the costs of security improvements after a student shot Millard South Principal Curtis Case and Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar in 2011. The Dec. 14 slayings of 20 students and six staffers at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., provided additional motivation.
But school budgets are so tight, Kolowski said, that unless voters approve a new bond issue, it can be extremely difficult to find the money for more security.
School shootings can occur in rural areas as well as urban, the senator said, citing Chadron Middle School teacher Andy Pope, shot while teaching in 1995.
“We need to provide our local school districts with the ability to make the security changes necessary to keep children safe,” said Millard Public Schools Superintendent Keith Lutz. “And we need to do that without taking money away from students and the classroom.”
Security projects accounted for $23.7 million, or about 17 percent, of Millard's failed November 2011 bond issue. Had voters approved, Millard planned to install a new system of locks, buzzers and high-resolution video cameras to keep out unauthorized visitors. The plan called for locking front doors at all schools after students arrived and requiring visitors to be buzzed in.
Board members hope to decide soon which projects to include in a second try likely headed for the ballot in April.
Mike Kennedy, a member of the Millard school board, said Friday he's glad lawmakers are looking for ways to help. The board has yet to review Kolowski's bill to see whether they support it.
A fund like the one proposed might be useful to pay for security personnel and systems maintenance, he said.
Kennedy said he's been hearing from people who want Millard to purchase high-end security systems. Board members want to achieve the right level of security at the right price.
“Our schools will not be Fort Knox, but our schools will have higher security,” he said.
Brian Maher, superintendent of the Kearney Public Schools, likes the idea of paying for security with a separate fund and levy. That way, security needs aren't competing for dollars with curriculum, maintenance and other expenditures, he said. The extra money would help pay for security changes that otherwise might be put off, he said.
His district could use additional security personnel, upgraded classroom door locks and improved video surveillance.
The district has a resource officer at the high school but would like to expand the program.
“We would love to be able to do more of that, but when you talk people, you're generally talking about spending quite a bit of money in a pretty short period of time,” he said.
During intruder drills, teachers are supposed to lock classroom doors, but not all doors lock from the inside. Those teachers have to go into the hallway, he said, putting them at risk.
Maher said he believes Kearney school board members and the community would support the extra spending if presented with a well-thought-out plan for how it would be used.
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