Security levies may be coming to voters

MARIETTA – Ohio school districts may soon have the option to ask voters to provide money for school safety and security – and nothing else.

There’s no law preventing schools from using a variety of funds to pay for things like security personnel, bulletproof glass, double entryways and more.

But that money is also needed and used for a variety of day-to-day expenses and capital improvements, some required by law. Senate Bill 42, approved last week by the Ohio Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, would allow public school districts to run a levy specifically for safety and security measures and dedicate the money solely to that purpose.

Tom Gibbs, superintendent of the Fort Frye and Warren Local school districts, noted the language of the bill does not specify what falls under the “school safety and security” category, so there could be a variety of legitimate uses.

“It could be for personnel in regards to a resource officer; it could be for equipment; it could be used for capital upgrades,” he said.

Both Fort Frye and Warren made safety upgrades in the wake of the December shooting deaths of 20 young students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The districts’ schools now have keycard readers to restrict access to the buildings, but Gibbs said they will be looking to expand the systems.

It’s too early to say whether either district would pursue such a levy, or if residents would support it, Gibbs said, but he thinks it could be a good option for schools to have in general.

Marietta City Schools are also moving forward with safety improvements without the aid of such a levy, said board of education member Bill Hutchinson. Security systems have been upgraded in recent years, and the board recently voted to seek bids for a project to keep all high school students under one roof by adding classroom space and a walkway to connect the main building with the auditorium and gymnasium.

“I don’t foresee, unless there was something drastic, that we’d need to put a levy on for security,” Hutchinson said. But “I think it’s probably a good idea to be an option for schools.”

At a January board meeting, a Marietta school district resident indicated her support for a safety levy in the district to fund additional protective measures. While there’s nothing to stop a district from using current expense or permanent improvement levy funds on such projects, there’s also nothing requiring them to do so, even if a board said that was the intent.

That’s been a potential problem Gibbs has pointed out to Warren Local residents who said they would support a levy to restore high school busing. Even if the board and administration put forth a levy for that purpose, if a funding crunch came, they would be obligated to use the money raised to meet requirements of state law – which do not include high school busing.

But just as a permanent improvement levy cannot be used for anything except repairs and items that would last longer than five years, a security and safety levy would be limited to only security and safety-related expenditures.

That provision would make such a levy more appealing to Belpre resident Theadora Lynch, 64.

“That would be wonderful,” she said. “I would definitely support it.”

Marietta resident Anthony Wilson, 33, said school and safety are on his mind more and more, with his son ready to start kindergarten in two years. But before voting for such a levy, Wilson said he would have to hear exactly how the district planned to spend the money it raised.

If “they explain to me what they’re using it for … specific improvements, I think I would support it,” he said.

Retired teacher Oran Adams, 77, of Waterford, said he too would need specifics but thinks a levy limited only to security measures would be “unnecessary.”

“I can’t see any kind of security things that would be so much they would need a levy for it,” he said.

New Matamoras resident Melody Keene, 59, said money should be used for what the board and administration say it will, but she understands situations could arise in which a change might need to be made. She said she would trust a board made up of multiple individuals to make that decision, so a strict limit on how a levy would be used might not be necessary.

Salem Township resident Rodney West, 39, said he is wary of funding limitations.

“The more they restrict you to how you spend your money, the more they restrict you in everything else,” he said. “It becomes the government controlling your money, not you controlling your money.”

The bill has not yet been voted on by the full state Senate and state Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, said he needs to research it more but while he generally supports the ideas of schools having more options, he believes school security needs to be addressed at the state level first.

“We have a school funding formula that doesn’t provide adequate funding for southeast Ohio,” Gentile said. “I think school safety ought to be included in how the state considers funding.”

Gov. John Kasich’s proposed school funding plan has drawn criticism because it keeps funding for 60 percent of the state’s district – including many poorer, rural ones – at current levels. Gentile said wealthier districts would have a better chance of passing a safety levy than cash-strapped ones.

“I don’t think we ought to hinge quality education and whether we can provide a safe environment on whether we can pass a levy,” he said.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, hasn’t taken a position on the bill either. While he said he would need to learn more about it, he doesn’t have a problem with the concept.

But Thompson said other measures might be better solutions, including authorizing multiple district employees to carry concealed weapons rather than using levy money to employ a single, uniformed security officer.

“I do think there might be more cost-effective – and effective – ways to address parents’ concerns,” he said. “I think what we try to do is provide flexibility to the districts to try to design something that makes sense for them.”