Watching another tragedy involving a shooting at a school in America raises fear and concern in students, parents, educators and communities across the country. Immediately following these incidents there will be the debate about gun control, but equally important will be the debate about school safety. When these incidents happen I am asked by parents and community members, what are you doing to ensure the safety of our children?
My school district, Payson Unified School District, like school districts across the state and country, has an emergency response plan. In Arizona, these plans are mandated under the law and are developed utilizing federal emergency response plan templates. Our schools practice lock-down or “code red” drills throughout the year, along with fire drills and bus evacuation drills.
As part of this program our district meets with local law enforcement quarterly to talk about student and staff safety and various safety protocols and procedures. Our district has worked with a variety of local and state groups to provide opportunities to practice mock drills or provide training sites for law enforcement. Our district has a student resource officer (SRO). An SRO is a state grant-funded position in which an officer from the local law enforcement is at district schools. In addition, there is fencing around our schools and the public is funneled through a main entrance.
I feel good about the measures that we have in place, but when parents and the community pressed me on why I don’t have more than one SRO or why there is not more done with my facilities to ensure the safety of our children I must honestly answer, we do not have enough money. The reality in Arizona is that most discussions regarding public education always revolve around funding. That will continue to be the answer until policies are changed that fix the structural funding deficit in Arizona. When the revenue coming into the state is not enough to meet the needs and wants of taxpayers, schools, districts, public health agencies, cities, counties and any number of other individuals, groups or entities, the answer to the question of “Why not more” will always be “There is a lack of funding.”
For example, the SRO program in this state is a great partnership between school districts and local law enforcement. The program provides so many benefits for the school district and law enforcement. Unfortunately, in Arizona only one-third of the schools that applied for money from the grant actually received funding. These 113 schools that receive funding represent less than 20 percent of all the schools in Arizona. In addition, a number of schools that had an SRO in previous years lost the SRO this year due to the increased competition for the money from this program. Funding for this program has not been increased in the past seven years.
Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed an additional $100 million for capital funding and facilities next year. However, the reality is that many school districts will have to move a significant portion of this money into another portion of their budget to pay for the mandated increase in the minimum wage. With the remaining money, school districts will be forced to make the difficult decision of fixing buildings that have been neglected for over a decade because of the lack of funding or put money into increased security measures.
President Trump suggested that a solution to the problem of school safety is to arm teachers. The purpose of this article is not to get into a debate on gun control, but I will point out that once again, this solution will cost money. If this is a solution, I need to ask, where will the funding come from for the training of this program? As with most ideas or solutions, there is always a price tag.
The reality for schools in Arizona is that the needs and wants are many, but the funding is lacking. For a state that is funded at the very bottom in the country for funding K-12 education, difficult decisions are made every day. These decisions are about student safety, class size, facilities, teacher salaries, all-day kindergarten, resources available for student health concerns, and hundreds of other issues. When schools in Arizona are funded below the level of funding they received in 2008, the answer is going to continue to be, “There is not enough money.”
I can’t begin to imagine the horror and grief that a school, district or community must go through when one of these shootings takes places. But equally tragic will be the answer to the question of “Why was more not done to protect our children” and the only response was “A lack of funding.”
— Greg Wyman is superintendent of Payson Unified School District.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.