Is School Safety at the Education Funding Cliff? Part One

Posted by on February 9, 2010

Sunday’s New York Times story entitled, “With Federal Stimulus Money Gone, Many Schools Face Budget Gaps,” looks at the budget gaps expected to be created when the federal stimulus education money has been spent by local districts.  Educators refer to it as approaching the “funding cliff.”

The Times story references new studies showing many states will spend most, and in some cases all, of their federal stimulus money between now and the end of the current school year.

School Safety Typically Victim of Budget Cuts

When school budgets get cut, school safety too often is the first victim. In the past, it has been a political ploy in some local districts to pressure parents into passing school levy and bond issues.  In other cases, it just seems to be the first place some boards and administrators feel they can cut without having a major impact on their schools.

School Resource Officer (SRO) programs have been one of the first to be trimmed down and even eliminated in some school-communities in the past five years or so.  In-house school security and school police departments have had vacancies left unfilled. Prevention and intervention programs, along with their staff, have been slashed without a blink of an eye.

Tomorrow’s school budget cuts are shaping up to be ugly — plain and simple.  It is not an issue of cutting tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars from the school district budget.  Many schools districts are planning to cut millions of dollars from their budgets. 

We are already seeing these cuts translate to probable losses for school safety programs.  The Indianapolis Public Schools reportedly plans to cut up to 20 percent, or around 15 officers, of its 75-officer in-house school police department.  In November, Bibb County (Georgia) Schools’ superintendent, along with two board members, told state legislators the state needed to dedicate significant funding for school security

These types of safety cuts in school districts are only exacerbated by budget cuts to local law enforcement and, city and county government.  In Plano, Texas, school police calls for service are on the rise, but school police patrols are on the chopping board

A number of states have also eliminated or cut back state-level school safety programs.  A September, 2009, Knoxville, Tennessee, story notes that even a year after a killing in a high school cafeteria, state and federal programs to prevent school violence are shrinking.  Several state school safety centers have been eliminated and/or trimmed down.

Safety Dollars Often “Peanuts” Out of Overall Budget

Standing alone, several hundred thousand dollars of school district money for prevention or policing programs sounds like a large potential savings if a board is considering cutting in these areas.

But a closer look typically reveals that the amount of money spent by school districts on school security and policing, or even prevention programs, is typically “peanuts” compared to the overall school district operating budget.

Boards and superintendents should divide the total number of dollars they may save by making such cuts into the overall school district budget.  The percentage is typically a miniscule amount in the bigger picture of things.

Another way to look at it is to take the total amount of money a district is spending on school safety programs and divide it into the overall district budget.  The “per pupil” amount of money typically spent on school safety is often embarassingly small in many school districts.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

While boards and superintendents can often make a solid justification in their minds that slashing school safety prevention, security, and crisis preparedness money is critical to reducing the budget, the bigger picture referenced above often suggests the opposite.

School leaders often fail to recognize the potential risks of increased legal liability and the adverse impact on school-community relations cutting school safety can have on a district.  One successful lawsuit for negligent security can wipe out years of potential savings from cutting school safety budgets.  The damage to a school district’s reputation, especially after a higher-profile crisis, can last for decades.

What’s Next?

Boards and superintendents should consider closely the potential costs of slicing school prevention, security, policing, and preparedness measures —even during the toughest times.  More than education funding may fall over the cliff.

Ken Trump

Tomorrow in Part Two, learn how schools can tap into local, state, and national resources when tight budgets prohibit creating or expanding in-house school safety resources, and when there is no other choice than to cut existing school safety budgets.

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