By Daniel Van Oudenaren
The Texas House Appropriations Committee is looking at options for how to assist Santa Fe public schools to sustain counseling and security programs that were put in place on an emergency basis after the mass shooting in May using one-time federal and state grant funds.
In the wake of the May 18 shooting by a 17-year old student, who killed eight fellow students and two teachers, the U.S. Department of Education provided a $1 million grant for counseling, attendance support, and security personnel to “restore the learning environment.”
The governor’s office also provided a grant to pay for four trauma counselors and an assistant, while a private company donated metal detectors. Santa Fe ISD itself spent $2 million on facility upgrades and other “hardening” measures.
In testimony to the House Committee on Tuesday, Santa Fe ISD’s Superintendent Dr. Leigh Wall and Board President J.R. “Rusty” Norman said they are worried that the upgraded security measures and counseling support cannot be sustained without either an injection of state assistance, a continuation of federal funding, or cuts to the educational programs of the district. They are also looking for help to pay for refurbishing the wing of the high school where the mass shooting took place.
“The financial impact of this traumatic year has weighed heavily on our district in many ways,” said Superintendent Wall. “We still have many hurdles to overcome in our recovery and we are respectfully appealing to you to consider for your budgeting discussions and planning to assist us in this process.”
She added, “No direct funds have been allocated to Santa Fe ISD to assist us with the facility needs resulting from this event. We are very concerned about the sustainability of moving forward without a reliable source of revenue for our heightened safety needs especially in regards to our added (security) officers, support personnel, and associated costs.”
J.R. Norman, Santa Fe ISD Board President, reiterated that without continued state or federal assistance the district may need to reduce funding for educational programs in order to sustain the security and counseling programs put in place after the shooting, and in order to pay to refurbish the wing of the Santa Fe high school that has been shuttered.
‘Students will continue to suffer until we can get these facilities back’
“We obviously are going to remain fiscally responsible and we know that we cannot continue to just spend out of fund balance and draw that to unacceptable levels,” he said, referring to the $2 million already spent by the district.
“At the same time we have students now that are suffering because of that tragedy and will continue to suffer until we can get these facilities back to offer the same educational experiences that we could prior to May the 18th.” He added, “increasing security means decreasing potential education experiences and I’m really struggling with that right now and hope to not make those decisions.”
Santa Fe’s school board has not called for a bond proposal or property tax hike to increase local funding for the schools.
Representative Ron Simmons asked the school officials to break down their needs into one-time costs and recurring costs. Leigh responded that the the one-time recovery costs total about $30 million for redesigning Santa Fe High School and for some districtwide safety measures. Another $1 million per year is needed to sustain the counselors and police officers hired since the shooting.
Simmons also asked whether the district has all of the personnel that it needs under current grant arrangements or whether ideally it would hire more – “assuming you had a blank cheque.”
“There’s some unknowns there,” responded Norman, pointing out that children are making heavy use of the counselors provided under the current grants. “We have some people who are still emotionally and mentally shaken… One of our big unknowns is how long will we need to continue a high-level counseling type program. We just don’t know that answer yet.”
Several lawmakers offered words of appreciation and reassurance to the visiting Santa Fe officials. Representative Greg Bonnen, the Committee’s principal liaison to the school district, commented, “As we begin to lay the foundation for what we are going to do in the next legislative session… what you guys share with us is very meaningful and very profound.”
When they convene in regular session in January, Texas legislators face choices over how much funding to provide for security and prevention programs statewide. In her testimony today, Wall appealed to lawmakers not to see her district as typical but rather as an outlier deserving of special investment.
She explained, “Santa Fe ISD is an outlier regarding our immediate need for resources and we are spending now heavily in response to a mass casualty event while also planning for sustainable future security assets and supports programs, which not only includes funding for hardening of our schools but for expanded mental health services and training for all staff, students and parents.”