Iowa schools weigh security programs against financial costs
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As schools across Iowa work to improve their security plans in the wake of high-profile school shootings, one public school district is focusing on hiring more security personnel rather than buying additional high-tech cameras and other devices.
The decision by the Davenport Community School District to spend $1.1 million from its reserve fund to increase security staffing, including placing unarmed guards in its 18 elementary schools, comes as districts across Iowa try comply with a new law requiring the adoption of extensive security plans.
Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said the state wants schools to have comprehensive plans that follow national recommendations, are reviewed regularly and are tailored to each school building. The plans must be developed in coordination with local law enforcement and include annual drills to ensure schools are prepared for emergencies beyond fires and tornadoes.
Even before the new law's passage, Wise said districts were improving their plans.
"Iowa has done a lot of high-quality work in the last five years since the Sandy Hook tragedy," he said.
Davenport Superintendent Art Tate said the district's new plan directs additional resources to elementary schools.
The School Budget Review Committee, which oversees how schools comply with state spending limits, granted Davenport authority Tuesday for a one-time expenditure from its reserve fund. The decision will allow the security supervisors to be in place when students return in August.
"Real school security relies on people," Tate said.
Tate said the district wants to provide "a modicum of relief" for parents and students who fear an attack on their schools. The guards will meet students at the beginning and end of each school day, making themselves a presence in elementary schools as they already are in the district's intermediate and high schools.
Pamela Rosa, who chairs the Iowa School Safety Alliance, said it's less common to have security staff assigned to elementary schools.
Paying for security staff is challenging because their salaries come out of the same pool of money used to pay teachers and other staff, Rosa said. Unlike staff, security improvements like cameras or locks can be financed by special infrastructure levies and sales tax proceeds.
"With the funding not keeping up with costs, you have to choose which person you're going to hire or keep," Rosa said.
Davenport plans to add two more school resource officers, bringing its total to six. They'll carry their service weapons, but the guards will be unarmed. Tate said arming guards, even with non-lethal weapons, would have added significant expense, and a resource officer is already responsible for each district school.
The Des Moines Public Schools has eight resource officers assigned to each of its high schools who also rotate among its middle schools, spokesman Phil Roeder said. Among other security initiatives, Des Moines requires visitors to present identification that's checked against the sex offender registry.
Middle and high schools in Council Bluffs all have resource officers, and the district is adopting new rules for visitor identification, said Council Bluffs Community School District spokeswoman Diane Ostrowski.
Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said legislators have improved flexibility by allowing districts to redirect some existing funding into security and other infrastructure needs. She said some districts are likely to need additional options.
"The biggest area that is still going to be a challenge for districts is hiring those resource officers," Piper said.
On Tuesday, budget committee members expressed concern that Davenport's expanded security program will increase costs as the district cuts millions of dollars in spending in the next few years, including making up for past spending in excess of state limits and adjusting for declining enrollment.
Tate was recently found to have violated professional ethical standards by deliberately spending more than the state authorized, and he now faces having his superintendent's license revoked as a possible consequence. He has been a vocal critic of how Iowa funds public schools and has called for increased state support. He also thinks districts should have the right to spend reserve funds on security personnel.
Des Moines and Council Bluffs officials also said more state funds would improve security efforts.
Wise, the state education director, said legislators likely will keep discussing school security funding options next session. He said the state's needs would become clearer once every district has plans in place, which is required by June 30, 2019.
Martha Bruckner, a former Council Bluffs superintendent recently appointed to the School Budget Review Committee, said she understands "how many sleepless nights" school officials spend thinking about security issues. She said it's hard to say no to safety proposals.
"It's such a difficult problem to keep someone who is bent on evil from doing evil," Bruckner said. "We don't know that (Davenport's) plan will make the difference, but we do know that doing nothing won't make it better."