San Antonio leaders say more funds are needed to secure schools

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After Texas’ deadliest school shooting happened in his district’s backyard, Southwestern Independent School District Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft knows the onus is on him and its staff, to ensure that all facilities in the district on the outskirts of San Antonio are as secure as possible.

This involves upgrading security technology, assessing each of Southwest ISD’s 18 campuses, correcting any physical security flaws, and training all staff in emergency operations.

But all of this comes at a cost.

While the Uvalde school shooting didn’t necessarily teach San Antonio school districts anything new about school safety, district officials say it reinforced their sense of urgency to solidify their plans. security and highlighted the need for much more funding to secure campuses.

Since the May 24 shooting, which killed 19 children and two teachers, Governor Greg Abbott has ordered state agencies to ensure schools are safe and instructed state education commissioner Mike Morath to to outline several actions that school districts must complete before the start of the 2022-23 school year. These actions include conducting security audits of all school facilities, inspecting every exterior door, convening each district’s safety and security committee to review contingency plans like school shootings and training all staff, including replacements, on safety procedures for their campus and district.

Additionally, Abbott ordered Morath to do more to ensure schools are held to “enhanced safety standards” and instructed Morath to determine the costs for school districts to comply with the heightened safety standards that the commissioner adopts, with a deadline of 1 September.

The state has contributed funds to support additional security measures. Senior Texas state officials have allocated $105.5 million to support additional safety measures, including $17.1 million for school districts to purchase silent panic alert technology and $50 million for dollars for bulletproof shields, such as those used to take on the Uvalde school shooter.

Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods speaks with staff at Jay High School in March. Credit: Nick Wagner/San Antonio Report

Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest school district, said he doesn’t think spending $50 million on ballistic shields is the best use of that money. The $105.5 million comes from the state’s main source of funding for school districts, the Foundation School Program, at a time when districts are struggling to maintain healthy budgets after two years of unexpected costs related to the pandemic.

“I think there are much more efficient ways to spend that kind of money,” he said.

Even after accounting for state-provided funding under Senate Bill 11 — a law passed after the 2018 Santa Fe high school shooting, when a 17-year-old junior killed eight classmates and two teachers and injured 13 others – Woods said the money just doesn’t go far enough to adequately secure schools. The NISD receives approximately $1 million annually from SB 11 funds.

“We spend well over $90 million a year on security projects, $1 million of which comes from the state,” he said.

The law provided for an annual stipend per student to fund school safety, such as training and new equipment. By law, school districts must adopt an emergency operations plan that addresses multiple threats and submit it for a safety and security audit to the Texas School Safety Center for review.

A spokesperson for the research center said no staff would be available for comment until at least the end of the month.

The act gave the Education Commissioner responsibility for setting building standards to “provide a safe and secure environment,” and another piece of legislation distributed $100 million in grants to schools to strengthen campuses, including many are over 40 years old.

Of this one-time state grant, NISD received about $1.7 million, SAISD received about $1 million, and ISD Southwest got about $223,000, according to a report by the Texas Education Agency detailing grant amounts. The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District received approximately $69,000.

“If your goal is to put access control in an older building or create a secure vestibule in an older building, that money just doesn’t go very far,” Woods said.

The average age of school buildings in the United States was 44 years old in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Robb Elementary was built in the 1960s.

NISD voters approved a nearly $1 billion bond package in November that will primarily fund upgrades to older campuses, of which $18.1 million will go to security and privacy upgrades. safety. More than half of NISD schools are over 20 years old, depending on the district. Helotes Elementary School is 83 years old, while Marshall High School is 72 years old.

Robb Elementary School is made up of several different buildings, separated by several breezeways across the campus.
Robb Elementary School is made up of several different buildings, separated by several breezeways across the campus. Credit: Nick Wagner/San Antonio Report

“Many buildings built before 1970 throughout the state of Texas were designed to capture airflow because they were not air conditioned. They are separated from each other. They have covered walkways that connect them. There’s a classroom on either side, lots of big windows because it was necessary to survive going to school in Texas in May or September,” Woods said. “These buildings are the hardest to secure.”

San Antonio’s ISD plans to spend more than $4 million to improve security this school year. The district recently upgraded its dispatch system to one that can coordinate communication between multiple agencies at the push of a button, said Capt. Armando Olguin Jr., director of compliance, policy and training for SAISD police.

“It eliminates seconds because seconds in large-scale incidents matter,” he said. “We work in the seventh largest city in the country as CIOs. Our response time as well as [the San Antonio Police Department’s] and the one in Bexar County is going to be very quick. The delay sometimes in large-scale situations is communication.

The system – called Symphony – integrates all first responder radios on a specific channel in the event of a large-scale emergency, allowing everyone to communicate simultaneously. The system also allows dispatchers to monitor surveillance cameras at each SAISD facility as well as CPS Energy power outages.

Olguin acknowledged the costs of keeping up to date with the latest security technologies that will ensure that SAISD is “a safe and conducive learning environment for our students and for our staff members.” He said more funds were needed for security devices such as doorbell cameras where campus visitors must register before they can enter, surveillance cameras and hallway monitors.

“The revolving cost and the continuous evolution of technology are things that will always be at the forefront when we look at safety and security,” he said.

But each campus has different security needs, depending on its age, location and size, Olguin said.

“If we had more funds allocated, we can definitely use more resources,” he said.

Armando Olguin Jr., captain of the San Antonio ISD Police Department, says his team constantly evaluates their policies to ensure they meet the community's school safety needs.
Armando Olguin Jr., captain of the San Antonio ISD Police Department, says his team constantly evaluates their policies to ensure they meet the community’s school safety needs. Credit: Bria Woods/San Antonio Report

For Verstuyft, upgrading older buildings to make them safer happens every time Southwest ISD modifies or renovates a facility, and like many other districts, Southwest has several older buildings.

“One area we really need to look at is integrating more technology into our security processes,” he said. “We are trying to identify the technology that would trigger a notification to the campus administration team if there is a door that does not make the proper contact to be completely secure from the inside.”

This is just one example of technology he would like to see implemented. Other examples include installing security vestibules as the main entry point on each campus, which would be fitted with bulletproof glass, and providing a communications system that reaches every classroom.

“We need additional funding if we’re going to shore up some of our buildings across Texas and this country,” Verstuyft said.

The Safe Schools Bill of 2019 distributes about $100 million per biennium to the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Tribune reported. The agency then allocates the dollars to school districts to fund equipment, programs and training to improve school safety and security. This equates to less than $10 per student based on average daily attendance.

Chief William McManus of the San Antonio Police Department is concerned about funding sources to maintain and upgrade schools so they are as safe as possible. He said the basic level of security on every campus should start at the perimeter, which likely includes fencing, but schools also need internal security protocols in place.

“And the immediate problem is where is this money coming from?” he said.

McManus recently met with area superintendents and district police chiefs to discuss security arrangements and assure them that SAPD would take command of any active shooter situation in San Antonio.

“I wanted to make that clear to them so it would hopefully give them some level of confidence that if there was an active shooter we wouldn’t see the same scene we saw in Uvalde. with a lack of leadership and confusion on stage about who was responsible and what to do,” he said.

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