A statewide school-safety program created after a fatal school shooting in Western Kentucky has had its budget slashed nearly 60 percent in the past five years.
The Safe Schools Program has seen its funding plummet from $10.4 million in 2007-08 to $4.5 million this year, prompting the Kentucky Center for School Safety to drastically reduce its school safety audits and districts to strain to find other money to pay for maintaining safety and order in schools.
But some Kentucky education leaders and legislators are saying those cuts need to be re-examined in the aftermath of the mass murder of students and teachers Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“It’s something we’re going to have to look at in light of what happened at Sandy Hook. But we should wait and see what exactly happened in Connecticut,” said state Rep. Carl Rollins, a Midway Democrat who heads the House Education Committee. “Our schools are still safe places.”
Jon Akers, the Center for School Safety’s executive director, said his agency has reduced its training programs for school officials by about half and canceled its annual safety conference this year.
Akers said the center will perform 57 audits of school safety this year — down from 90 when it was fully funded. In those audits, a team of experts visit a school to assess its safety needs.
“The cuts have limited what I can do and what superintendents can do, but we still try to find ways to make things happen,” Akers said. “We still provide training, technical assistance and safe school assessments in the school districts, but not as much as I would like.”
Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said he’s confident the state’s schools are safe, but he said the funding cut needs to be examined. “I worry that we’re not able to do as many school safety audits as we would like.”
Begun in 1998
The General Assembly created the Safe School program in 1998, just months after a shooting at Heath High School in West Paducah killed three students and injured five others.
It funds the Kentucky Center for School Safety, based at Eastern Kentucky University. And it provides a stream of state money to districts dedicated for costs of maintaining order and security.
But the recession hit the program with a sharp funding decline as Gov. Steve Beshear and the General Assembly grappled with falling tax revenues and soaring costs for public pension obligations, Medicaid and state debt payments.
“This is symptomatic of a larger problem we have in Kentucky of bearing our responsibilities to the citizens we’re supposed to serve,” said state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville. “Until we face up to the financial crisis that we’re in, so many important support services for children and others will continue to erode.”
Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said safety in schools is an administration priority. “As we look toward future budgets, we will look for opportunities to restore many of the needs in education, such as professional development, textbooks, and the Center for School Safety,” Richardson said.
When the program was funded at $10 million, Akers said, his center got about $1 million with the remaining $9 million distributed among school districts under a formula based partly on student population.
Now, he said, his center gets $830,000 with about $3.7 million going to the districts.
Those districts, he said, can use their funds for security equipment and school resource officers — trained and armed law enforcement officers...