Minn. lawmakers look to boost school security

State lawmakers are tackling school security on a variety of fronts, ranging from mental health programming to added flexibility in spending. Tuesday, Rep. Jenifer Loon rolled out legislation that would allow local districts to use long-term maintenance dollars for new safety projects.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- State lawmakers are tackling school safety on a variety of fronts, from enhancing mental health treatment programs to freeing dollars for security upgrades.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, the Eden Prairie Republican who heads the House Education Finance Committee, rolled out a bill that would allow local districts to use long-term maintenance dollars for new safety projects without waiting for voter approval.

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Currently that pool of money is restricted to repairs of buildings, and can't be used for new features.

"Previously this program has been to replace a leaky roof, maybe do some repairs in terms of maintaining their physical facilities, but specific safety upgrades have been not allowable use," Rep. Loon told reporters.

"The bill I've introduced today will specifically allow schools to use the long-term maintenance funds for school security enhancements, such as new entrances, security cameras, communications devices and other types of security equipment."

The Long-Term Facilities Maintenance program is funded primary by local property tax revenue, but it is augmented with a partial match from the State of Minnesota. It varies from district to district, but the statewide average is $444 per pupil, with $356 coming from local property taxpayers and $88 in state equalization aid.

This particular bill wouldn't increase the state's share, but would allow districts to start working on security projects rather than waiting for voter approval of a capital improvement bond referendum at the next election.

"Schools are going to have to make choices about projects on their list," Rep. Loon explained.

"If they feel that improving the physical, safety of their buildings would take priority over other things on their list, this gives them that flexibility."

David Morelock, the security director for the Osseo Area Public Schools, testified Tuesday in favor of Loon's bill.

"Our plan to do some target hardening at Osseo Schools, would cost $16 million," Morelock told lawmakers.

"These dollars would allow us to add secure entry ways at three of our high schools, also allow us to allow physical security technology to assist staff."

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Some committee members suggested that districts shouldn't have to choose between repairs and security projects, and that the Legislature should increase overall state funding for school security.

Loon said she's open to doing that, if there's a supplemental spending bill this year. She also said she would support adding school safety projects to the 2018 public works construction bonding bill, if one can assume the Legislature will approve one.

Sen. Carla Nelson, a Rochester Republican, has also introduced a school security bill. Hers would add State aid dollars to the existing School Safety Levy program. That's another funding stream that's currently funded entirely through local property taxes.

The benefit of the School Safety Levy program is that it can be used to hire school security officers, in addition to physical improvements. Even if the Long-term Facilities Maintenance program is expanded to include security projects, it won't pay for guards or other personnel.

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to announce his own blueprint on Wednesday morning, which may include a combination of security funding as well as changes in gun regulations.

Thus far, the Republican-controlled legislature hasn't embraced any changes to firearms regulations in the state. The House Public Safety Committee last week voted down universal background checks and gun violence protection orders.

Those bills had been locked in committee since last session without a hearing, but Rep. David Pinto's motion forcing a hearing on the bills required immediate action. The committee had a little more than an hour to take testimony and debate the bills, and that time constraint offered no opportunity to haggle over amendments.